ASSASSINS Hits Target, Wins Prize at PlayMakers Repertory Company

Attention must be paid to PlayMakers' ASSASSINS. L to R: Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau, Maren Searle as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz and Joseph Medeiros as Guiseppe Zangara. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Attention must be paid to PlayMakers’ ASSASSINS. L to R: Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau, Maren Searle as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz and Joseph Medeiros as Guiseppe Zangara. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Musicals aren’t my first favorite form of theatre, and probably won’t ever be, but PlayMakers Repertory Company has been steadily eroding my prejudices with the seductive pleasures of its annual large-cast musical productions. Assassins, this year’s blow-out (through April 20), happens to also be a ferociously comic consideration of American gun culture, where the assassin or would-be assassin of a President gains the summit of social and historical notoriety. For PlayMakers, it continues the theatrical exploration begun in January, with the PRC-commissioned The Story of the Gun by Mike Daisey. The Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Assassins, directed here by Mike Donahue, first played in 1990, and in some ways the show’s killers seem almost quaint–hapless and endearing, even–compared to today’s suicide bombers. In other ways, the show seems au courant, as when Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Sam Byck talks about flying a 747 into the White House to kill Dick Nixon. The script is rich with 20th century social, political and artistic references (e.g. Death of a Salesman) and may mean the most to people who already have some familiarity with a few 20th century Presidents and the assorted characters who took up guns to kill them, but you needn’t know a thing to have a good time.

Non-linear space-time in PRC's ASSASSINS: Patrick Mchugh as Lee Harvey Oswald (L) AND Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Non-linear space-time in PRC’s ASSASSINS: Patrick McHugh as Lee Harvey Oswald (L) and Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Assassins foregoes a straightforward storyline in favor of a collection of robust vignettes and songs  that collectively make a potent stew of satire, cynicism, pity and politics, floating in a gravy of dark humor. It foregoes the constraints of linear time altogether, freely bringing together people of different eras–John Wilkes Booth appears before Lee Harvey Oswald, for instance. The characters and stories are provoked, tempted, drawn on and catered to by the Balladeer (Spencer Moses) and the Proprietor, played by Ray Dooley. Dooley has not been onstage enough this season, and it’s wonderful to see him do his magic, imbuing his very footsteps with menace. His smile as he offers guns guns guns glitters with Mephistophelean knowledge. I had never seen a production of this show previously, and was skeptical that this stuff would really be funny–but I laughed often and loudly, between chills.

Maren Searle (L) as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore in PlayMakers ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Maren Searle (L) as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore in PlayMakers ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Julie Fishell is hilarious as Sara Jane Moore, who tried, sort of, to assassinate President Gerald Ford, and she and Maren Searle as Squeaky Fromme are priceless together. Jeffrey Blair Cornell channels Al Pacino and gives a fantastic performance as Sam Byck, a once-employed and self-respecting man, now an out-of-work Santa who just can’t see anything else to do besides try to kill the President. When we first see him, he’s wearing his Santa suit and a 3-day beard. He strips off his jacket to reveal a singleton undershirt and sits down with his lunch and a tape recorder to record a rambling letter to Lenny Bernstein, his hero, before he heads of to commandeer that 747.

Even he is upstaged by Jeffrey Meanza, who steals the show each time he appears as Charles Guiteau, the charming crazy con man who killed President Garfield. Meanza, whose day job is as assistant artistic director of PlayMakers, sings and carries on to beat the band, and his dancing! Choreographer Casey Sams has him skipping and bowing all over the stage in a charming and most amusing fashion. That band is pretty hard to beat, too. Mark Hartman on piano leads another nine musicians as the brass-rich group plays throughout the show far upstage in Rachel Hauck’s dark and flashy set that combines carnival, cabaret and Manganyar Seduction.

Assassins has a great tag line from itself: “Everybody pays attention when you’ve got a gun.” No doubt about it.

L to R: Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore, Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth, Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau and Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz, in PRC's ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

L to R: Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore, Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth, Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau and Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz, in PRC’s ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Turn Out for Turn About: BROADWAY TWISTED at Local 506, one night only, 4/15

“We have the medical and public health tools we need to halt the HIV epidemic and enable people living with HIV to live relatively healthy lives. What we need now is the political will and community commitment to make sure every North Carolinian living with or at risk for HIV has the information, support, and healthcare they need.”

— Claire Hermann, NC AIDS Action Network
Undergrads from UNC's Dept. of Dramatic Art rehearse for Broadway Twisted, 4/8/2013.

Undergrads from UNC’s Dept. of Dramatic Art rehearse for BROADWAY TWISTED.

I know, I know, the causes and projects vying for your attention and cash are just overwhelming. But once in a while, somebody cooks up a fundraiser so good-humored and good-hearted that it revives a spirit drained by the continual supplication of Good Causes. Broadway Twisted, coming up Monday, April 15 in Chapel Hill’s Local 506, is such a one. For a mere $10 donation, you can enjoy an evening of show tunes sung by a cadre of actors singing across the gender divide–and your money will go to the NC AIDS Action Network, and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. The concert will showcase some high-class singing and carrying on, but what makes it great is that it showcases people at their best. Giving their time and talent, men and women from the theater community are joining forces to do something about a problem it is easy to lose sight of if you are not, for instance, one of the tens of thousands of people in North Carolina who are living with HIV.

Broadway Twisted is the brainchild of Nathaniel P. Claridad, an MFA student in the UNC Professional Actor Training Program, and pretty boy Bobby in the current PlayMakers Rep production of Cabaret. PRC/Cabaret, along with Manbites Dog Theater and its upcoming production, The Homosexuals, are the official presenters, with Tim Scales and his company Wagon Wheel Arts Promotion donating production assistance. Claridad will direct the concert, and PlayMakers’ affable associate artistic director Jeffrey Meanza will emcee.

Taylor Mac, right, in PRC's Cabaret. Josh Tobin as the Gorilla. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Taylor Mac, right, in PRC’s Cabaret. Josh Tobin as the Gorilla. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

The biggest draw is Cabaret’s Emcee, the New York performance artist and Obie Award-winner Taylor Mac.  One wonders what gender-swapping may mean in his case. Lisa Brescia, the powerful Broadway singer currently in the Sally Bowles role in Cabaret will also appear, along with the show’s excellent music director and band leader Mark Hartman. Local community favorites include Julie Fishell and Ray Dooley, PRC members also in Cabaret. (All these people are performing gratis on their one night off.) Will Ray sweep in wearing his Lady Bracknell dress, or may we hope for something scantier?

Doors open at 7:30, Broadway Twisted starts at 8, and will run about 90 minutes. (Due to NC Liquor Laws, membership is required to attend shows at Local 506. Memberships are $3 and available at the door on the night of the performance.) Tickets $10 at the door, or at http://www.local506.com. You can spend your extra cash on raffle items. It’s for a good cause.

“36,500 people are living with HIV in North Carolina. One in five don’t know their status. Treatment can reduce transmission by up to 96% according to a recent UNC study, but only 30% of people diagnosed with HIV in NC are getting the care they need to be virally suppressed. “

— Claire Hermann, NC AIDS Action Network

The NC AIDS Action Network (NCAAN) is North Carolina’s only statewide advocacy organization dedicated to fighting for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, their loved ones, and those at risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS in North Carolina. NCAAN and our thousands of Action Team members advocate for sound policies that improve access to care and prevent new cases of HIV, educate the public about HIV/AIDS related issues, challenge stigma, and strengthen our statewide community of advocates living with HIV/AIDS and allies. www.ncaan.org

Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA) is one of the nation’s leading industry-based, nonprofit AIDS fundraising and grant-making organizations. By drawing upon the talents, resources and generosity of the American theatre community, since 1988 BC/EFA has raised more than $225 million for essential services for people with AIDS and other critical illnesses across the United States. BC/EFA awards annual grants to more than 450 AIDS and family service organizations nationwide and is the major supporter of the social service programs at The Actors Fund, including the HIV/AIDS Initiative, the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative, the Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic, The Dancers’ Resource and the Stage Managers’ Project. www.broadwaycares.org

BroadwayTwisted_FlyerWeb

3 plays–from hell to angels–continuing this weekend

Dorothy Lyman as Violet on the set of August, Osage County. HSN | TR

Dorothy Lyman as Violet on the set of August, Osage County. Photo: HSN | TR

In Raleigh, an impressive production of August, Osage County by Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh.

Under the intelligent, well-timed direction of Eric Woodall, August: Osage County examines three generations of an extended family at a time of particular crisis, even for them. Osage County stretches north and west from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the Kansas line, and is the kind of place on the plains where people find either contentment or the overwhelming urge to be somewhere else. The

Dorothy Lyman with cast of August, Osage County. HSN | TR.

Dorothy Lyman with cast of August, Osage County. Photo: HSN | TR.

family’s story is introduced by the patriarch, Beverly Weston (Phil Crone), as he interviews a young woman to live in and help around the house. He explains the situation: he drinks; his wife takes pills. One doesn’t cause the other, he says, it is just how it is, and they don’t interfere with each other’s habits. The habits, however, are detrimental to orderly housekeeping.

Read the my full review on CVNC. The show, in the lovely Fletcher Opera Theater, closes Dec. 9.

In Durham, at my hometown art house, troublesome weirdness acted with verve:

Candy Korn plays a role in Manbites Seventy Scenes of Halloween. Photo: MDT.

Candy Korn plays a role in Manbites’ Seventy Scenes of Halloween. Photo: MDT.

Seventy Scenes of Halloween, a mutable play by Jeffrey M. Jones, was the initial show presented by Manbites Dog Theater in the days of its bold youth, 1987, in its first awkward space at 343 West Main Street in Durham. It’s an unsettling series of short scenes that may be put together in any order the director desires, but no matter how it’s ordered, it’s not a play you can pigeonhole — making it an excellent introduction for the new, oddly named company. No one, of course, had any expectation that 25 years later Manbites would have its own building and be celebrating an unbroken quarter-century of weird and wonderful new plays. These have been years of huge change in Durham, but this funky little theater (that makes the eagle grin on every dollar it can get) has provided continuity, and community, along with the challenging art.

Read my full review on CVNC. Show closes Dec. 15.

And in Chapel Hill, a delightful, high production value version of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.  This review was first published Dec. 4 in The Indyweek, appearing in print with the headline “Season’s greetings and hellish holidays.”

Todd Lawson and Katja Hill in PlayMakers Repertory Company production of It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio PlayPhoto: Jon Gardiner

Todd Lawson and Katja Hill  at Radio Station WPRC, in the PlayMakers Repertory Company holiday  production of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Photo: Jon Gardiner

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Ray Dooley in PlayMakers Repertory Company production of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Photo: Jon Gardiner

The onslaught of holiday plays and concerts is upon us, and the roster includes many regular favorites (or yawners, depending), but this year PlayMakers Repertory Company offers an old favorite in a charming new guise. It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1947 Frank Capra film with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, for all its many merits and despite its condemnation of capitalist greed, is awash in sentimentality. This adaptation by Joe Landry is not. Sure, there’s some, but just a dusting atop a layer cake of real feeling. I went in expecting to be entertained and came away nourished.

Directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play segues smoothly from the introductory “radio play” section with the five actors “reading” the many parts behind microphones, into a very active stage play in which the actors convert the few chairs and props into whatever’s needed. Along with composer/ musician Mark Lewis on piano, the cast also provides sound effects. Seeing how they make them in no way lessens their impact, even while the sight reminds us of the artfulness of what we experience. The play and this particular staging are unusually effective at exposing the artifice underpinning the theatrical experience without diminishing its magic.

Brandon Garegnani as the Angel Clarence, and Todd Lawson as George Bailey, in PlayMakers Repertory Company production of It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Photo: Jon Gardiner

Brandon Garegnani as the Angel Clarence, and Todd Lawson as George Bailey, in PRC’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Photo: Jon Gardiner

McKay Coble’s wonderful set for WPRC/ Bedford Falls is as much a character as any other, and Burke Brown’s lighting brings its many aspects to life. Todd Lawson, making his first PlayMakers appearance, is very moving as George Bailey, while MFA students Brandon Garegnani and Maren Searle give delightful performances as the angel Clarence and the lovely Mary Bailey, respectively. Durham actress Katja Hill shows her impressive range in several parts, from the child ZuZu to the vamping Violet. Ray Dooley also takes on many roles, including the mean old Mr. Potter, but as the radio announcer, he’s bright as brilliantine. This show’s highly recommended if you need to recharge your belief that yes, in spite of everything, it is a wonderful life.

The show runs through Dec. 16.

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