Opening Tonight: A Youthful VIOLET

One of the lesser-known pleasures of summer around here is the theatre production which culminates the annual Summer Youth Conservatory program of PlayMakers Repertory Company. Talented stage-struck students from Triangle area schools work for about a month with professionals in PlayMakers’ facilities at UNC-CH to prepare a show, generally a musical; a little later in the process students interested in the backstage work join them for technical training. Then late in July, the show gets a full production in the Paul Green Theater in the UNC Center for Performing Arts. The ones I’ve seen have been thoroughly enjoyable, full of heart and overflowing with good energy.

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L to R: Presyce Baez as Flick, Wilson Plonk as Monty and Ainsley Seiger as Violet in PlayMakers Summer Youth Conservatory production of VIOLET.  Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

This year’s production, Violet, derives from a story by the late great Doris Betts, “The Ugliest Pilgrim.” With wonderful, varied, music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, it’s a fine conversion of the touching story about a young, scarred  girl from Spruce Pine, NC, and her travel into the wider world. The lead role is filled by Ainsley Seiger, who did such a fine job last year in Guys and Dolls. Matthew Steffens, who led that production, directs and choreographs again this year.

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Marcella Cox and the ensemble in PlayMakers Summer Youth Conservatory production of VIOLET. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

Violet opens tonight, July 21, after a preview show, and will play July 21-23 and 29-30 at 7:30 pm, with matinees on July 24 and 31 at 2 pm. Modestly priced tickets here.

PRC’s Nuanced New Version of THREE SISTERS: Ennui on Stage, but Not in the Audience

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The Ensemble in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of THREE SISTERS by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Libby Appel. Jan. 20-Feb. 7, 2016. Directed by Producing Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

After several snow days, the PlayMakers’ Repertory Company‘s new production finally got to open on Tuesday, Jan. 26. It was not quite the celebratory occasion everyone had expected, the big welcome to PRC’s new producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch. But there is plenty of cause for celebration following the first public presentation, however delayed, of this updated classic. Benesch has beautifully directed an elegant new version of Anton Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS, by Libby Appel, and has gotten both seamless ensemble work and acute characterizations from the large cast, in the process bringing out many points of commonality between the life depicted in the classic play and life today. If you are new to Chekhov, this would be a marvelous introduction; for the repeat viewer, it may in some ways be a revelation, and not just for the success of the color-blind casting.

Given the deep understanding of character and human arrangements that Appel has demonstrated previously as a director at PRC (The Glass Menagerie, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) and her avowed lifetime passion for the works of Chekhov, it comes as no surprise that her Three Sisters provokes empathy rather than impatience with its philosophizing, unhappy people. (This new version was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, of which Appel is Artistic Director Emerita; she was assisted in the literal translation by Allison Horsley.)  Benesch, as she has previously demonstrated at PRC in her direction (especially of Love Alone, and In the Next Room), has a capacity of heart that allows her to show us humans with their marvels and their fears and foibles all blended.

Appel, Benesch and Chekhov together coax us into a nonjudgmental state of empathy and compassion for people whose weak or ridiculous qualities we might otherwise despise, and force us to ask the characters’ questions of ourselves. What do we really know? How do we get through this life? Is work the answer? Action, accomplishment, love: does any of it matter? Are we just stuck here, getting more stuck every day? Chekhov wrote Three Sisters in 1901, but sometimes this play (set in a Russia very long gone) seems stunningly modern, and very like Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days.

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L to R: Arielle Yoder as Maria (Masha) Sergeyevna, Allison Altman as Irina Sergeyevna, Marinda Anderson as Olga Sergeyevna and Joshua David Robinson as Colonel Aleksander Ignatyevich Vershinin in PRC’s production of THREE SISTERS by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Libby Appel. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

On Tuesday night, the cast, although having had their momentum interrupted before they had even completed previews, was uniformly solid, from the students to the longtime PlayMakers to the guest artists. But in the second act they rose again and again to brilliance, and all the passions running under their surfaces burned clear. Daniel Pearce is particularly notable as Kulygin, the kind, absurd, self-deluding schoolteacher whose bored and disappointed wife Masha takes up with the dashing Colonel. Pearce makes him pathetic, but not pitiful; we cannot laugh at Pearce’s Kulygin, although we know he is ridiculous. The production design by Alexis Distler and the solo cello music composed by Ari Picker and played from the stage balcony by Isabel Castellvi further encourage us in a mournful kindness to those versions of ourselves, our families, our societies, who are bumbling through life on stage.

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Daniel Pearce as Fyodor Iliyich Kulygin and Allison Altman as Irina Sergeyevna in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of THREE SISTERS. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

As happens on rare, wonderful occasions in theatre, some of the passions on stage became so real on Tuesday night that even the actors seemed to forget they were acting. Daniel Bailin, as the Baron, seemed to actually tremble while saying goodbye to Irina and going his brave and foolish way.

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Joshua David Robinson as Vershinin and Arielle Yoder as Masha in PRC’s production of THREE SISTERS. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

And Arielle Yoder, Allison Altman and Marinda Anderson were so far in character as the three sisters that when the lights went down and the applause went up, the three visibly had to force themselves back to the here and now, and stifle their tears so they could take their bows. Now that’s powerful theatre.

At PlayMakers through Feb. 7. Tickets here.

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Arielle Yoder (Masha) and Allison Altman (Irina) near the end of PRC’s production of THREE SISTERS by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Libby Appel. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Vacation’s Over, Theatre’s in Full Swing

Area theaters are kicking the new year off right. PlayMakers Repertory Company’s PRC2 series has a very interesting one-woman show through Jan. 10, KJ Sanchez’ Highway 47.

One of the play’s purposes, of course, is for the artist to come to terms with being her father’s daughter. But unlike many personal history-centered performances, Sanchez uses those personal meditations to bolster the tragic story, rather than making herself and her trials the point of the production. Certainly she reveals a good deal of herself, but (so happy to report) her play is not screaming “me, me, me.” Instead, she allows this story to reveal a little-known aspect of the history of this continent, and cannily places it in the long theatrical tradition of exploring human frailty and venality, and the ties and taints of blood.

Go here to read my full review on cvnc.org.

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At PlayMakers’ PRC2 through Sunday, Jan. 10.

 

Elsewhere: take your pick, or gorge on theater day and night.

Friday brings the first night (also Jan. 9 and 14) of a developmental reading of a new work by Mike Wiley, Downrange: Voices from the Homefront, in Swain Hall at UNC-CH. Presented by the UNC Dept. of Communication Studies and Street Signs, this is the first in this Process Series, Veterans and Their Families: A Festival of New Works.  (919) 929-2787. http://www.streetsignscenter.org/

In Durham, the Delta Boys reprise their production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information at Manbites Dog through Jan. 10. Shows are selling out. Contact Manbites for tickets. www.manbitesdogtheater.org or 919.682.3343.

Common Wealth Endeavors previewed Small and Tired, a new play by Australian author Kit Brookman, last night at Common Ground Theatre. The official opening is tonight, and the run extends through Jan. 23.  Directed by Gregor McElvogue and starring Jane Holding, Justin Brent Johnson, Justin Peoples, Linh Schladweiler and Laurel Ullman, the play reworks the Ancient Greek myths surrounding the house of Atreus, setting them in a very recognizable landscape: the suburban back yard. tickets@fromcommonwealth.com  919 410 8631. Review coming here next week.

There’s lots more! Check your local calendars.

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