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Theatre Review Archive


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Part I & II
























Directed by Diane Paulus
Blumenthal Performing Arts
Belk Theater
July 15 - 20, 2014

During a summer in the 1930s in Charleston, South Carolina, living is easy, according to the folks residing on Catfish Row. Although this was the era of the Great Depression and the unemployment rate was above twenty percent, the Negroes on Catfish Row work hard, play harder, and try to find love in the meantime.

The Tony Award-winning production, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, places the audience in the middle of Negro life as they throw dice, sing to bunting babies while attempting to scratch out a living and stay happy in the close-knit community.

Having never seen the musical, originally an opera, I certainly looked forward to tunes that were written to pay homage to blacks and explain their lives during that time. Clara (Sumyya Ali), holding her baby boy, immediately breaks out into the most popular tune from this production, "Summertime." Her voice was flawless as was each and every cast member who lended their vocal chords that night.

Set in the courtyard of the community amidst rusted buildings and hanging shingles, the men seemed to unwind by guzzling liquor and betting their luck on bones (rolling dice). All is well until Crown, a known thug and his hussy Bess (Alicia Hall Moran) saunter in half drunk and ready to take over the friendly game. Sportin' Life, a traveling drug dealer provides Crown with "happy dust" that he quickly snorts, to Bess' objection, which makes him bolder and more confrontational. After things don't go Crown's way during the game of dice, he causes trouble and flees, leaving Bess to fend for herself, but promises that he'll return for her.

Alone and desperate, Bess takes up with the only person who will have her — the crippled lonely beggar, Porgy (Nathaniel Stampley), who lives just down the way. Scorned by women all his life, Porgy is happy to finally have any woman showing interest in him, and quickly falls in love with the beautiful woman whom everyone else loathes.

Later, Porgy belts out "I Got Plenty of Nothin' " exemplifying his happiness, although he still has nothing but a woman and his life. Smitten with Bess, Porgy attempts to fix his twisted legs and rid himself of the limp and cane he uses to walk so he can be a true man for Bess. However, Bess's recent past is about to catch up with her after the community picnic on Kittiwah Island that she attends without Porgy.

Running from her demons, Bess makes it back to Catfish Row days later, questioning her loyalty to Porgy and longing for a new life without having to look over her shoulder. No matter what happens, Porgy continues to support his new woman and whatever lifestyle she chooses. They profess their love for each other and Porgy vows to protect his Bess at any cost — and he does.

Overall, the singing is phenomenal, even though I'm not a fan of operatic performances, and the choreography is also to be noted. I was a bit disappointed in Bess's performance and her attempt at a southern dialect.

This classic, although award-winning, was controversial in its early years, especially within the black community. They did not approve of the depiction that the race was impoverished, uneducated and only solved their problems with violence. Despite the controversy, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is certainly worth seeing if you love theater and period pieces. The live orchestra, however, was the best part for me. I would go again, just to listen to them play.                 Review by Dawn Thornton

Dawn Thornton is a freelance writer in the Charlotte area. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Stage and Screen from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Uptown Magazine. Dawn enjoys reviewing theater productions, movies, and loves most things artistic.

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By Michele Lowe
Directed by Justin Robert Atkisson
Appalachian Creative Theatre
June 13 - 15, 2014

Now that Charlotte has lost Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, who will take the risks that CAST did to produce new, controversial, unusual, unheard of quirky plays? Also lost are the many opportunities the theatre gave to a community of unseasoned actors and directors to gain experience. One place to look are the numerous young, independent companies like Appalachian Creative Theatre. This is their impressive debut season at UpStage.

Currently, The Smell of the Kill is playing on a short run until June 15. When first produced, this play caused a bit of a flap by a male reviewer who apparently did not "get" the dark humor. Has he never seen a Neil LaBute or Martin McDonagh play? Or maybe the thought of women exacting revenge against deficient husbands is just too much, or too real, for some to handle?

The story centers around three women, who don't even care for each other that much, after a dinner. The wives are cleaning up in the kitchen (what else?) while the husbands, who we never seen, are only heard off stage behaving like adolescent jerks (voices of Brian Seagroves, Anthony Sotelo and Michael Ford.) The trio of wives, Nicky, Molly, and Debra (Elise DuQuette, Glynnis O'Donoghue and Devon Chandler), argue, insult and confront each other about their lives and husbands. Eventually, an inadvertent circumstance presents itself that offers a solution to their husband problem. What will they do?

The Smell of the Kill is not an especially deep character study or profound story, but it is funny. Credit to director Justin Robert Attkisson for guiding his cast to good performances. The most "likable" character is Molly played by Glynnis O'Donoghue, who makes the most out of every line with perfect comedic timing. Elise DuQuette portrays the career woman with a necessary bitter edge. Devon Chandler's wife is the most familiar down-trodden type, strident, but well-defended almost to the end, asking the metaphoric question, "People make mistakes, but do you murder them...?"

Maybe it's difficult to admit that women have murderous impulses, but listen to the daily news. More often, though, women are the victims. Thoughts are not actions, and the play doesn't suggest they should be, but for seventy minutes you can laugh at the worst of our flawed and damaged, peculiar human nature.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is co-founder and film/theatre review editor of ARTS la Mode. Vive les arts.

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Lyric & Live Dialogue by Brian Khan and Stan Peal
Produced by Mike Collins and Brian Khan
Blumenthal Performing Arts
Booth Playhouse
June 6 - 29, 2014

The annual ruffling of the feathers is upon us with the onset of everyone's favorite SNL-ish production, Charlotte Squawks. This is the tenth year of the local satire that throws painful punches at everything from the arrival and abrupt departure of Chiquita Banana, the money pit called The Nascar Hall of Fame, and the return of our beloved Charlotte Hornets.

Our newest mayor, Dan Clodfelter did an amazing job, considering he's not an actor. At least I don't think he is. Then again, most politicians are acting in some form. Speaking of the mayor, the night wouldn't be complete without mentioning the latest elephant in the city, Patrick Cannon and his recent failed attempt at selling his soul for bargain basement prices.

At times the microphones and audio system seemed to be muffled so I missed several pokes, but that didn't stop me from cackling at "Hard Lines", a parody of the song "Blurred Lines" by R&B singer Robin Thicke, that made fun of our governor Pat McCrory and his Immoral Mondays, flawlessly executed by Patrick Ratchford. Ratchford looks so eerily like McCrory that I had to rub my eyes and do a double-take. One funny scene that several couples in the audience seemed to closely identify with was "SouthPark Mall", a parody of "Wrecking Ball" by Miley Cyrus, that echoed the feelings of men who have been trapped in the upscale abyss while their wives have been kidnapped by dressing rooms, cash registers, and clothing racks.

Since I've attended previous years, my expectations were at the highest level, but I think I was just a little disappointed. I expected no less than a funny funeral for Patrick Cannon's recent antics, but I suspected much had to be omitted since there was a pending trial. I also didn't feel that pleading for Harris Teeter to stay intact was worthy of a mention, just like those parodies aimed at the churches in Myers Park, and watching movies on Netflix.

For a nice evening out, Charlotte Squawks - Ten Carolina Commandments is certainly an option, but I'll be waiting with bated breath for next year's edition with hopes of it replacing what I missed in this one.                 Review by Dawn Thornton

Dawn Thornton is a freelance writer in the Charlotte area. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Stage and Screen from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Uptown Magazine. Dawn enjoys reviewing theater productions, movies, and loves most things artistic.

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Book & Lyric by Stew
Music by Stew & Heidi Rodewald
Directed by Chip Decker
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
June 5 - 28, 2014

With sharply intelligent lyrics, delightfully varied tunes, many satiric twists, fanciful characters, and yet a compellingly real story, Passing Strange takes the audience on a black musical comedy odyssey from south central Los Angeles to Amsterdam to West Berlin. Developed in 2006 by the rock musician Stew, leader of The Negro Problem, and his fellow performer/composer Heidi Rodewald, Passing Strange went to Broadway in 2008 and won the Tony for Best Book. With the current Charlotte production, it's easy to see why. But this show also creates a bridge between cultures here and elsewhere: black and non-black, American and European, or LA, NYC, and our "world class" city.

Jeremy DeCarlos, as the Narrator, breaks the modern stage's "fourth wall" to build that bridge at the start of the show. He engages the audience directly with local references and eye-to-eye contacts, as he plays guitar, sings, explains things, and sometimes counsels his younger double, the Youth (Mekhai Lee), whom he calls "our hero" and "pilgrim." (Both of these characters reflect aspects of Stew, who originally played the Narrator.) The Narrator takes us from the Youth's 14-year-old existential angst in a middle-class single-parent home, with his mom (Ericka Ross) wanting him in the Baptist church, to his initial boredom there, to his marijuana initiation in a VW bug by the church's Youth Chorus and preacher's son, Franklin (John Watson), as his new "tribe," to his separation from mom and trips to Amsterdam and Berlin, where he experiences much more sex, drugs, punk music, and performance art with other tribes.

The sex and drug adventures may make some in the audience nervous. But the Youth's musical ecstasies in the Baptist church and in different European cities are infectious. The caricatures are also outrageously funny. Yet each scene returns to touching ironies, at the heart of the satirical hilarity. For example, the church service is presented as a fashion show. But mom prays there for God to reach her son—and He does. The Youth kisses the sky at his joy in gospel rock music, though his mom finds it unholy. So he starts a punk band, The Stereotypes, but that leaves him unfulfilled, realizing they are "just passing for black." So he leaves his mom and peers in L.A. to write music and find other gods elsewhere—especially after the preacher's son warns him about control coming from the parental checkbook: "cowards only have consequences."

DeCarlos charms the audience as the meta-theatrical Narrator, but so do the rest of the cast in their varied roles. Lee is just as compelling with his initial earnestness as the Youth, and then transformations in the sex/drug paradise of Amsterdam, which makes "Berkeley look like the Bible Belt," and in Berlin, with his "Now-Haus" tribe of grotesquely intense, yet playful satirists. Watson shows the greatest extremes, playing the preacher's proper, yet devilish son, Franklin; the fun-loving Dutchman Joop; and the monstrously comical performance artist, Mr. Venus, who can make the audience laugh just with his pauses (and how he repeats, "What's inside is just a lie"). But Gerard Hazelton is likewise amazing in his range: from preacher to delinquent teen to flamboyant Dutch philosophy professor cum sex worker to fierce security guard to bullying German artist.

The women in the cast draw out new emotional frames for the Youth's changing identity. Ross reveals the mother's hypocrisies and yet sincerely loving, wounded attachment to the Youth. Like a mythic nymph, Renee Welsh-Noel takes various forms in seducing him away from her—a teen at church who demands his worship, an Amsterdam angel who gives him the key to paradise (which he eventually finds boring), and a stern German who pushes him into performance art and then adores him for his sardonic Mr. Middle Passage, who is "passing for ghetto." Her earlier Amsterdam seductress, joined with Kayla Carter's, become, in the words of the Narrator: "two female Jesuses who colored him Lazarus and rolled away the stone." Carter shows a fantastic range, too, by playing a mischievous L.A. teen earlier and the Youth's firmly communist, Teutonic woman-friend later on, who strives for open-mindedness but cannot imagine introducing him to her family.

All the actors sing and dance very well. The set, designed by Chip Decker, is simple yet splendid with changing projections in fragmented rays around the drummer, extending to the other musicians, who are also excellent (under the musical direction of Mike Wilkins). The ending of the show changes tone toward the tragic, but finds hope in its music-theatre magic. The story alone is powerful, with the acting superb, and the music, singing, and dancing make it all as if passing into many strange realms—offering insights about our remixing identities and beliefs, as tribal artists.        Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards. He blogs at

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By Barry Kornhauser
Directed by Mark Sutton
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
June 6 - 8, 2014

A neighbor introduces the main character of this 40 minute play as an "old man" who works very hard, so hard that he forgets to play. This might be a problem that affects children, too, when a parent comes home with a stern attitude after a long day at work. But this Children's Theatre show brings laughter and new friendship to the Old Man, who apparently lives alone, with the audience of children and adults as his mirror.

The set design by Tim Parati combines realism and fantasy, with a partial wall topped by clouds like the view outside its single window. Mark Sutton (the show's director) plays the Old Man with masterful mimicry, revealing various transformations in character through the props of daily life. When he comes home, for example, he has comical problems with closing his umbrella and picking up his hat—showing obsessive frustrations. And then, as he tries to relax and read his newspaper, he gets bothered again by a red balloon that sneaks through his window.

He tries, again and again, to keep the balloon's playful influences out. (A child in the audience when I saw the show echoed a quick review of this: "He funny. He funny.") But soon the Old Man remembers it's his birthday, accepts the balloon as a gift of life, and draws a face on it to make it his friend. The new friend energizes him, brings him a cupcake, and even returns with another present after the Old Man gets angry at the balloon for his own mistake.

Sutton performs the entire show without speaking a word, yet his gestures and facial expressions have a great deal to say about discovering joy in simple things. Iesha Nyree plays his neighbor (and helper behind the wall), showing that it's good to keep in touch with those living near us, even if it's through "balloonacy." Thus, as Sutton's mime and direction delightfully depict, beyond the weariness of work, fear of intruders, or anger at loss, playfulness at home and a window to the outside world can bring surprising returns.
Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards. He blogs at

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By Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Kelly Mizell-Ryan
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
June 6 - 21, 2014

Joseph's 2000 play is a love story—a tragedy with many comic moments about a couple who care for each other passionately, yet cannot commit to being together. Maybe that's appropriate for the final show at CAST, which will close its doors after this one runs out, due to lack of support from the Charlotte audience it loved and wooed for over two decades.

Apropos of CAST (and its being in the red), audience members get a ticket tied to the play's main theme: a Band-Aid ticket with a seat number. They also see playground equipment in the lobby with warning signs not to play on it. Bloody injuries occur throughout the play, yet they reveal deeper wounds in the personalities of the two characters, Doug (Erick Blake) and Kayleen (Nicky Jasper).

We see them at various ages, through short scenes that leap ahead, and backward, and forward again in time: from age 8 to 23, to 13 to 28, to 18 to 33, to 23 (again), and to 38. This unusual mapping of the characters' lives is aided by projections at the start of each scene that give their ages and the scene's title, along with precise choices by the actors to define the developing and redeveloping personality stages. Costume and makeup transformations, though somewhat hidden in the corners of the box theatre, are almost as intriguing as the scenes at its center.

Doug shows off to impress Kayleen with daring stunts that lead to gruesome injuries, first at their Catholic grade school and then at various later points that bring them together briefly. He believes in her beauty, her goodness, and her power to heal him. But she doesn't—until it's too late, expressing a growing self-disgust instead. She shifts from a fascination, at age 8, in touching his wounds, to revulsion at his kiss as a teen, yet attraction to his mixing of their bodily fluids, to rejecting his hugs, as a 20 and 30 something, when she most needs them, after her parents have died and she starts to harm herself, too.

"I'm not here to take care of you," she tells him at 23. Then, a couple of scenes later, but five years earlier, she confesses to him that she just had sex with someone else in order to get sex "over with," admitting that her ostensible "boyfriend" forced it on her. Doug responds with rage at that guy and then cries: "Why's everybody gotta be so mean?"

Each character wants to nurture the other. But their fetishizing of self-harm, at times as a dare to each other, goes beyond healing into its opposite—keeping the wounds open as the only way the characters can connect. This tragic paradox is wonderfully explored by the two actors, under the adroit direction of Kelly Mizell-Ryan (a colleague of mine at UNC Charotte's Theatre Department).

The play's romantic tragedy-mystery is comical, compelling, and frustrating to the doctor-gods in the audience, who see the mirrors of time reflecting in both directions. But it's also sad that CAST and its Charlotte supporters cannot go back in time, after this play, to make their love affair continue. Instead, the bloody bookkeeping is ending this theatre's (and especially the Simmons family's) artistic gifts to our community—and that's a gruesome playground injury.             Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards. He blogs at

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By Lauren LoGiudice
Direction by & Movement Specialist Janice Orlandi
Original Direction by Gregory Cicchino
Stephen Seay Productions & Campus Pride
May 30 - 31, 2014

Greta Garbo was an enigma when alive, but the once-famous Hollywood icon still fascinates as this one-person, one-act show demonstrates. Written and performed by Lauren LoGiudice, her Garbo is an old woman of 84, lonely, paranoid, delusional, though memories of her past glory both amuse and torment her.

The play takes place entirely in Garbo's New York City apartment in 1989, but through her splintered mind the audience sees both her sad present reality, and the events and relationships that created her persona.

From an early age, Greta Gustafsson was desperate to escape what she experienced as a suffocating existence in her native Sweden. She attached herself to director Mauritz Stiller, and they come to America where she had her first success, only to abandon him when he was no longer useful. This pattern of using others continued throughout her working life as she became romantically entangled with the movie star John Gilbert, who wanted to marry her.

Garbo admits to being unhappy. It's possible her inability to express her authentic self off-screen could be explained in terms of her sexuality. It appears in the star system of the "Golden Age" of Hollywood, studios and producers like Louis B. Mayer terrorized and "owned" actors to such a degree that they could threaten to make or break careers. Garbo reportedly had physical relationships with men and women. Could it be that she was with men out of convenience, but with women out of true desire? Garbo leaves public view and retires at age 36, spending the next 48 years ignoring and hiding from the press.

The scenes race from one thought to another. The transitions are not always smooth, but no doubt represent a deteriorating mind. Garbo watches "Hollywood Squares", becoming in her psyche a contestant, with Paul Lynde, Michael Jackson, Adolf Hitler, and even the Grim Reaper occupying the squares. Her main connection with reality is through her niece, Gray, mostly by phone as shown here. She often confronts a painting in her apartment, calling it Harriet for her often used pseudonym Harriet Brown. Garbo wants to preserve her image and her privacy, terrified that people will find and exploit her medical records, so she does what she believes necessary: "I did what I did to save 'Garbo.' "

The show requires a simple set and few props. Voiceover recordings are provided by Christopher Catalano and Sara Dacey-Charles. Ms. LoGiudice conveys an arresting portrait of Garbo, especially her vulnerability. Garbo was a woman in physical decline, teetering on the edge of sanity, and yes, utterly alone, just where she said she wanted to be.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is co-founder and film/theatre review editor of ARTS la Mode. Vive les arts.

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Story and Script by Ben Elton
Music and Lyrics by Queen
Blumenthal Performing Arts
Belk Theater
May 27 - June 1, 2014

I'm a mid-70s kid. Growing up during that era meant chewing on wax candy filled with colored sugarwater, stuffing your mouth with pieces of Dubble Bubble or Big League Chew bubble gum, and turning on the television precisely when your favorite game show came on, such as "The Dating Game" or "Family Feud." It also meant cranking the radio up to "you're in trouble" decibels when listening to Rod Stewart, Elton John, or Queen, one of the most popular British groups of the time.

Led by the flamboyant and immensely talented Freddy Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, the Queen ensemble also included Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor. Although the original band was called Smile, in 1970 Freddie joined the group, changed it's name to Queen and took on Mercury for the completion of his stage name.

With 18 number one albums, 18 number one singles, and 10 number one DVDs, it's no wonder this iconic group is worthy of it's own cult-like following in the musical, We Will Rock You, named after a popular single penned by the group. When Galileo (Brian Justin Crum) hears words randomly whispered in his mind, he sets out on a quest to find out what they mean and how he can reincarnate a free-thinking society that loves real music played by live instruments instead of canned tunes typed into a computer. After bumping into his female counterpart. who he affectionately calls Scaramouche (Ruby Lewis), they stumble through each other's ideas and opinions, ultimately deciding to work together to find out how to break the chains of a manufactured life while escaping the suppressor, Killer Queen.

From beginning to end, the production blasted many of the favorites from the group, even if some of the melodies were slightly different from what I remember. From "Radio Ga Ga" to "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and ending with a concert-like performance of "We Are The Champions", many patrons sang along and tossed about unteased hair, probably as they did 40 years ago.

Ruby Lewis deserves a one-woman musical after flawlessly belting out song after song throughout the production. The larger-than-life Killer Queen (Jacqueline B. Arnold) also did a wonderful job nailing her songs. The rest of the cast was up to the musical challenges as well.

The biggest disappointment of the evening, at least for me, was the 10 second snippet of everyone's favorite song, "Bohemian Rhapsody". I fully expected that to be the grand finale of the show, but was harshly let down when I realized the snippet was all I'd get. I left the theater feeling thirsty, as if I'd run a half-marathon in scorching summer heat and someone had forgotten to hand out water at the finish line.                 Review by Dawn Thornton

Dawn Thornton is a freelance writer in the Charlotte area. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Stage and Screen from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Uptown Magazine. Dawn enjoys reviewing theater productions, movies, and loves most things artistic.

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By Tony Kushner
Directed by Charles LaBorde and Thom Tonetti
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
May 7 - 31, 2014

CAST Theatre brings Tony Kushner's epic exploration of America, AIDS, and homosexuality back to Charlotte after the controversial production almost two decades ago. The nearly seven hour production (in two parts) moves with kinetic energy from scene to scene. I had the distinct pleasure of seeing both parts (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika ) on the same night. It was a breathtaking production. At the end of our long evening (starting at 1 pm and ending with a long dinner break after 10 pm), the entire audience was energized and inspired.

Tony Kushner's operatic and epic (in the Brechtian sense) production has held up well since its premier in 1991. Though firmly entrenched in Reagan era politics and though certainly treatment for AIDS has changed significantly, the core themes of the play revolve around being true to one's self despite social and political pressures—and these hold true. I was worried, having not read the play since my undergrad days, that the play would have become more of a historical memorial of sorts and not resonate as strongly as it once had. Instead, our evolving sense of self and morality has deepened our appreciation of Kushner's multi-layered treatise.

The massive production is co-directed by Charles LaBorde and Thom Tonetti. Both wisely follow Kushner's advice that the production be minimally staged and that the moments of magic should retain their theatricality. Kushner was highly influenced by Brecht, and it is clear that LaBorde and Tonetti honor that influence. Actors visibly move furniture on and off the stage in view of the audience, the majestic appearance of one major character is appropriately magnificent, but wires, hoses, and hinges are clearly visible and all to the benefit of the production. The simplicity of the tech lets the audience focus on what is truly important—the characters. LaBorde and Tonetti aid the actors with striking the balance between operatic pathos and honest emotion.

The cast of amazing performers propels the play effectively. All find ways to evoke each character honestly allowing the audience to experience their flaws (and they are all deeply flawed—even the angel!) and their strength. Even the demonized Roy Cohn (Bob Paolino) is portrayed with such passionate conviction his sheer wrong-headedness becomes hugely and romantically quixotic. Berry Newkirk is the befuddled hero, afflicted with AIDS in a time when that was almost always a death sentence, and chosen as a prophet by supernatural forces. Newkirk is enjoyable, unconventional and wonderfully sympathetic. Joe Rux gives a virtuoso performance as Louis Ironson doubly cursed with the inherent guilt of his Jewish heritage and a mind sharp enough to know he is not up to the task of caring for his dying lover. Robin Tynes plays the valium-addicted, clinically depressed, possibly agoraphobic Harper Pitt. Harper, a Mormon, is married to the closeted and fiercely moral Joe Pitt (played with affable innocence by Will Triplett). The married couple tortures each other with their convictions. Joe knows he is gay, but as he sees his Mormon obligation, fights his nature and chooses to stay in a relationship based on affection but not physical love. It is a recurrent theme in Kushner's work that so much evil can be done for absolutely the right reasons.

Paula Baldwin is a force to be reckoned with as she plays several characters throughout the production including Hannah Pitt (Joe's mother) and the ghost (or angel?) Ethel Rosenberg. Each character is unique, fully developed, and achingly portrayed. JR Jones' portrayal of nurse in drag Belize is subtle and effective. Kindra Steenerson's angel is wonderfully flawed, angry, celestial, and sensual.

The cast acts well as an ensemble, and it is clear every effort was made to keep the characters human and empathetic.

Technically the production is ambitious and mostly effective. Dee Blackburn and Kenn Eliis' unit set envelopes the arena stage and pushes into every area it can. It is restrained in its use of industrial materials (corrugated metal, brick, and beadboard make up most of the setting). A collection of platforms and lofts encompass the area and easily allow each scene to progress or play simultaneously. Alex Mauldin provides original music that subtly and appropriately underscores most of the production. Michael R. Simmons' lights make good use of shadow and texture to suggest the ever changing locations necessitated by the script.

Donald Devet's projections were more hit or miss for me. I preferred the subtlety of many of the projections over the bold rain and snowfall videos. The scene titles were wonderfully handled, though sometimes difficult to read through the window slats. Carrie Cranford's wigs helped separate a raft of separate characters, and Jordyn Boci's makeup subtly (perhaps too subtly) suggested the ravages of AIDS. More apparent changes for Cohn might have supported the performance even more.

This is one of the most ambitious projects I have had the pleasure to witness in Charlotte, and CAST is more than up to the challenge. Angels in America is a heart wrenching and ultimately inspiring exploration of the challenges and successes of the human spirit. It is, rightfully, an important piece of theatre for all of the right reasons—it is entertaining, illuminating, and evokes our sympathy in a profound and meaningful way. There is very little I would say is essential viewing, but this play may be an exception.                      Review by Tim Baxter-Ferguson

Tim Baxter-Ferguson is professor of Theatre at Limestone College and Chair of that program. He has had his plays produced throughout the United States and Canada.

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By Rick Elice
Based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers
Music by Wayne Barker
Movement by Steve Hoggett
Blumenthal Performing Arts
Knight Theater
April 29 - May 4, 2014

Origin stories have become popular in recent years, with varying degrees of success. Peter and the Starcatcher is the prequel to J.M. Barrie's play Peter Pan, and based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. It's certainly one of the most amusing, even though many know how the story eventually turns out.

And you certainly get your money's worth with a top notch cast, first rate book of the play, inspired direction, good musical interludes, and loads of laughs. The many satiric pop culture references and asides packed in the show invite the audience to be part of the fun, rather than trying to make fun of them. A play is bound to be a winner when you get the audience on your side. But you have to be fast to catch the different types of verbal humor, with mentions such as, "You need me on that wall," or the snarky, "splitting rabbits" instead of "splitting hares" The net lingo of acronyms speak to today's shortcut texting, and you might have to refer to your urban dictionary a few times. The character is even called, "Peter Pun, er Pan." How about a musical number with pirates in drag?

The play is well-cast with standouts Joey deBettencourt as sympathetic orphan Peter, the energetic performance of Megan Stern as the feisty Molly, and the scene-stealing John Sanders as Black Stache, who seems to love every minute of over-the-top, verbal and physical comedy acting. Check out his, "Oh, my God" moment for how to get an audience enthralled. Matching the names of the characters to the actors is a bit confusing, though all are terrific, and deserving of credit.

The excellent sight lines at the Knight Theater are all the better to appreciate the well-designed, utilitarian unit set by Donyale Werle that includes side towers for the musicians, one for a piano and the other side for percussion. Also notable is the costume design of Paloma Young, lighting by Jeff Croiter, sound by Darron L. West, and movement by Steven Hogget. And of course, directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers bring all the elements together perfectly.

Peter and the Starcatcher is well worth a trip to the theatre. The age group is listed for ten and over, and there is one intense scene that may frighten younger children. But as we know, J.M. Barrie was on to something. He understood that the child in each of us, like Peter Pan, never really grows up.            Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is co-founder and film/theatre review editor of ARTS la Mode. Vive les arts.

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By Kahlil Ashanti, TJ Dawe, Justin Sudds, Frank Warren
Directed by TJ Dawe
Blumenthal Performing Arts
Booth Playhouse
April 22 - May 4, 2014

On the website,, the concept is described this way, "PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard." Millions of people have participated, and continue to do so. Information points to Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues as a blueprint. But the sound bites here are much shorter. This is indeed more of a multimedia show than a traditional play.

When you walk into the Booth Playhouse a large screen presents a steady stream of live tweets by audience members, cast and those who know about, have participated, or are interested in PostSecret. One amusing tweet from an audience member last night said the person talks with an English accent when he/she meets new people. (Audience chuckles follow as they read the tweet silently, then smiling, point at the screen to the person next to them.)

You get the idea. PostSecret is a bit of a confessional. We, the audience, become the "therapists who listen" but don't judge. In case you think this might be too touchy-feely for you, I have to say I found it thoroughly engaging. How often do you get to know the way so many people are thinking? The postcards range from outright funny, to snarky, to poignant and yes, downright crude. Sometimes it seems as though the writer is bragging. Sometimes audience laughter comes from acknowledgment of feeling/doing the same thing but never admitting it before.

Postcard examples include: (excuse my paraphrasing), "I put feminine hygiene products in men's carts at the supermarket." "My parents told me the ice cream truck only plays music when it runs out of ice cream." And one parent apparently informed a child that while Santa comes down a chimney the Easter Bunny comes out of the toilet—and some are worse(remember, this is a show for adults). The show also attempts to illustrate the range of how secrets affect our lives: a section on those who save voicemails of lost loved ones includes actual recordings.

The saddest postcards include hopeless feelings, and thoughts of suicide. The founder of the concept, Frank Warren, worked at a suicide hotline. Reaching out to others in the PostSecret community to give support is probably the best outcome of the project. When a postcard from someone who had lived in this country illegally indicated a suicide attempt, it prompted one of the readers to start an online group called "Please dont jump", which has become a noteworthy aid to those in such dire straits. This section of the show doesn't dominate, though. Information is given, hopefully heard, but is skillfully located between more upbeat sections. The show is not a downer, in fact, it's quite humorous. Even critics of the PostSecret concept get their say when the cast recites a litany of critical remarks.

After a recorded explanation about the origin of the concept from Mr. Warren, the actors: JR Adduci, Birgit Darby, and Kerry Ipema bring the audience along. This talented ensemble projects the right tone—warm, neither saccharine nor confrontational when presenting the postcards.

During the show actual postcards flash colorfully on the screen. The variety is significant. It strikes one how alike we are in some of our deepest thoughts, yet how original some can be in expressing them. And not to go unnoticed is the kaleidoscopic creative art/design of the submissions. One mantra of the show is, "You are not alone.", and you do sense that you are part of a community by the end of the show.

Adding to the sensory experience is musical accompaniment by Todd Murray, who softly strummed an electric guitar on one side of the stage. A couple of recorded songs were used to complement some extended projections of themed PostSecrets, including "Let It Be".

Following the intermission, during which the audience is encouraged to anonymously submit their secrets on a postcard, the cast reads several and then an "open mic" session is suggested but only the cast performs, this to intentionally recall some of Frank Warren's live sessions when audience members line up to tell a secret.

If you are curious and open, you just may come out of PostSecrets feeling a little closer and more compassionate towards others. They are you.           Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is co-founder and film/theatre review editor of ARTS la Mode. Vive les arts.

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By Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Dennis Delamar
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
April 17 - May 10, 2014

Every family has its secrets. In theatre, the style called "psychological realism" has often been based, for over 100 years, on a deep dark secret that causes friction in a family throughout the "well-made" play and is finally revealed at its climax. Baitz's 2010 play explores social issues through its family conflicts like Henrik Ibsen's work of the late 1800s. The key issues here are conservative control versus liberal progress and family respectability versus the tell-all exposé. But the plot also hinges on a writer recovering from severe depression, who aims her pen at her parents and lost brother.

Josephine Hall plays that writer, Brooke, with painful, yet witty integrity. Her mother, Polly, is played by Katherine Goforth with stoic inscrutability. Jerry Colbert performs a more sensitive father figure, Lyman, who has the sly calmness and playful charm of a movie actor turned politician and ambassador. Now retired, he reminisces about his famous friends, such as "Ronnie" and Nancy Reagan. (The play is set during the initial stage of the second Gulf War with references also to Bush, Rumsfeld, and Baghdad.) But Colbert also reveals the tragic conflicts raging inside his character—when his daughter moves against him.

Ryan Stamey plays Trip, Brooke's brother, and Polly Adkins performs Silda, her aunt. Mother and aunt are Jews from Texas, former screenwriters in Hollywood, having had brief success with a few comic films. Brother Trip currently produces a reality TV show, "Jury of Your Peers," with fading stars as the jury, "roasting" both the plaintiff and defendant. A sixth character haunts this play—a lost terrorist brother and son, who challenged the parents' elitist rightness in more radical ways than Brooke's past clinical depression and present book manuscript.

The parents' high class tastes are shown with an elaborate Palm Springs living room onstage. Wood and stone, in desert browns and reds, decorate the sitting area, coffee table, bar, and fire pit, with abstract paintings and live plants along the walls. There is a Christmas tree reflecting the time of year. But the play's title must also refer to the destruction dealt by US forces half a world away, brought home to this room, psychologically, by the lost son's and current daughter's challenges to family myths.

Love and humor permeate the play's tensions, along with blame, mourning, and despair. Stamey's Trip and Adkins's Silda sometimes provide comic relief. Yet they, too, are drawn into the tragic vortex as Brooke persists in finding and publicizing the truth that her parents' fight to hide—until she realizes their real reasons and joins in their fundamental, parental compassion. Thus, there are hard-earned lessons in this well-written and finely staged play. Even if it follows an old-fashioned formula, it speaks to current conflicts between generations and political orientations, showing how fears and difficult decisions at home reverberate across lives and deserts.                   Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards. He blogs at

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By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Heather Byrd
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
April 10 - May 3, 2014

If anyone deserves to be in Hell, it's Judas, right? So why bring him up to Purgatory to retry his case? But that's the premise of this 2005 play (originally directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman for an off-Broadway audience). The time is ripe to ask such questions, here in the "buckle of the Bible Belt." After a banking crisis and thirteen years of the War on Terror, we are starting to see that our enemies may be more like us than we'd like to believe.

Courtroom dramas are popular in film and TV. And the earliest extant Greek play (The Oresteia) ends with a trial scene. But they are difficult to make engaging onstage, especially in an almost 3-hour play, with the static layout and legal formalities of a courtroom. Wisely, Guirgis interweaves the trial scenes with flashbacks of Judas as a child excited by a spinning top (showing the development of compassion and yet thievery in his character), as a guilty guy in a bar befriended by Satan, as a traitor interrogated by Pilate (like Jesus), and as an abject, catatonic convict visited by a funky St. Monica. His mother, Henrietta, also evokes sympathy with her views of him at the start of the play and when she takes the witness chair. And there are subplot speeches by a cigarette-smoking angel named Gloria, Mary Magdalene, St. Peter, St. Thomas, St. Matthew, and several jury members. Indeed, some of this is too much—in plot, long speeches, and empty philosophizing.

Yet the CAST lobby and set design (by Chris Schenning) create interesting ways to include the audience in the well-known story of a traitorous apostle and in the new twists of his purgatorial retrial. Religious pictures in the lobby help to identify the historical characters. Audience members are given a small black bag "of silver" as their ticket. And nooses are hung above their heads as they approach the stage.

Onstage, a central chair on a platform allows each witness to turn totally around, to continue facing the various areas of the arena's audience, and for lawyers on each side to circle with challenging questions. The judge's bench is high in one corner with sheets of blank paper extending down from it to the stage floor and also surrounding the witness platform, like scales or rectangular feathers, suggesting both a hyper-legal cosmos and our brain's reptilian origins, yet angelic aspirations. Overhead are broken ceiling ledges. The floor is rough concrete and the lawyers' benches are folded cardboard boxes on beer kegs, evoking Purgatory's dingier side, too.

All fourteen actors are excellent with many playing multiple characters and several as new faces on the CAST stage. Especially powerful are Dominic Weaver as Pilate, Brandon Samples as Judas, Christian Caspar as Satan and Sigmund Freud, Michael Smallwood as the prosecutor, Caroline Renfro as the defense attorney, Robert Hackett as the bailiff and Simon the Zealot, and Jonathan Ray as the judge, St. Matthew, and Caiphas. Corlis Hayes as St. Monica and Iesha Hoffman as an angel and Mother Teresa also bring comic relief, but at critical angles.

Idioms, characteristics, and costumes (by Kaylin Peachey) bring the Biblical characters into today's contexts, even when in Purgatory or Holy Land flashbacks. Pilate has a Caribbean accent, for example, and is dressed in shorts and a golf glove, ready for his tee-time. Satan trades his silk shirt for Judas's dirty brown vest, while seducing him toward false friendship, suicidal despair, and a self-made hell.

Many modern questions about God, psychology, sex, abortion, and guilt circulate in this cross-historical court/circus. It might not be the real Bible characters that we see onstage (or Freud who forgets here about his death-drive theory). But this inventive absurdist play is often engaging and insightful, for various types of believers, holding many surprises for those who wonder what kind of cosmic justice we can still agree on today.                   Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards. He blogs at

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Story by Kenneth Grahame
Adapted by Mary Hall Surface
Directed by Adam Burke
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
McColl Family Theater
April 11 - May 4, 2014

Kudos to puppet designer Magda Guichard for the mythical, magical creature on stage in The Reluctant Dragon. Reminiscent of the stage puppet in War Horse it is truly spectacular. Ms. Guichard was somehow able to make a gentle face for the artistic-leaning dragon. It also releases puffs smoke at the right moments, and does double takes! The dialogue and head control is left to Mark Sutton, always so spot on that Im running out of superlatives to describe his work. The other puppeteers include Matthew Baldoni, Sidney Horton and Kayla Piscatelli. As in War Horse the fact that you can see the puppeteers doesn't distract from the enjoyment. In fact, it stretches the imagination, which isn't a far reach for children, and a good exercise for adults.

A smart boy named Glaston (in a good turn by Nicholas Stephens), wants to find the dragon, and when he does is surprised by a creature unlike anything he expected. Glaston and the talking dragon bond over their literary leanings. But he must convince his parents, the townspeople, and St. George (David Warwick, suitably heroic), who has come to slay him, that the dragon (the last of his kind), is worth saving.

Director Adam Burke assembled a sterling cast, and along with those already mentioned include: Allison Rhinehardt, Steven Ivy, Darlene Parker, Greta Marie Zandstra and Chaz Pofahl. At times the thick accents are difficult to understand, but the intent is always clear. The technical crew did a wonderful job with costumes by Jennifer Matthews, clever projections by Ryan Wineinger, props by Peter Smeal, sound by Jason Romney, lighting by David Fillmore, choreography by Greta Marie Zandstra and original music by Danielle Rhea. However, along with the dragon, the set design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec is super, especially the medieval town with half-timbered houses that gives a perspective of depth, highlighted by the work of scenic artist Tim Parati.

Based on the story by Kenneth Grahame, this version was written by Mary Hall Surface conveying the necessary facts and themes. Children do go through a phase where they are fascinated by dragons, and of course, they are meant to be scary. Beyond that, is there something in our DNA as we were evolving that warned us that those different from ourselves were dangerous? In his time, Kenneth Grahame thought it was time to advance, and so we should.

The Reluctant Dragon is a delightful way for Children's Theatre of Charlotte to end the main stage season.           Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is co-founder and film/theatre review editor of ARTS la Mode. Vive les arts.

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Created, Written, and Directed by
Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton, and Chris Wink
Blumenthal Performing Arts
Belk Theater
April 15 - 20, 2014

Creepy, blue, yet entertaining is how I would describe the painted trio better known as the Blue Man Group. Belk Theater was packed with giggly, squirmy little kids accompanied by giggly, squirmy adults for the opening of this production, originally formed in 1987 as a tribute to '80s culture.

Several men rotate characters throughout the tour and those that participated in Charlotte's show really delivered. Beginning with techno beats bumping so hard I could feel the vibration in my chest, each man had his moment behind his own shadow and whatever instrument he tapped. For one, it was an oversized drum and mallet that he banged with such force it could probably be heard throughout the uptown area.

Beating drums that housed fluorescent vials of paint that splattered onto the stage and into the audience was one of the wildly creative antics displayed by the group. As children screamed and their parents whistled, the guys came up with even sillier tricks including a mouth-stretching ball toss that almost caused me to lose my dinner. The woman who received the end product didn't seem to mind the art piece the Blue Man spewed from his mouth into her expensive looking purse.

Since there were no words spoken, there was great use of large screens with typed messages for the patrons to read and participate. And participate, the audience did—especially the incredibly energetic boy sitting next to me. The little guy had a blast! Many of the references were simply for adults, like, 80s songs and dance moves. But the children who weren't the target audience for those moments enjoyed it as if it was Sponge Bob Squarepants.

One big let-down was a patron they plucked from her seat and pulled on stage. After several minutes of group comedy, I waited for the big pay-off but it never came. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy the high energy music throughout and the fantastic Fourth of July type finale with blinking ginormous vinyl balls bouncing in the audience, the shooting streamers and the dance club strobe lights.

The show is wonderful for all ages and would be an ideal family outing.                 Review by Dawn Thornton

Dawn Thornton is a freelance writer in the Charlotte area. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Stage and Screen from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Uptown Magazine. Dawn enjoys reviewing theater productions, movies, and loves most things artistic.

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Book & lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Blumnethal Performing Arts
Belk Theater
April 1 - 6, 2014

Ghost The Musical has made it's way to Charlotte and debuted on April 1st at Blumenthal's Belk Theater. The production opens with bright-eyed couple Molly and Sam moving into a swanky New York City loft, and Sam's third-wheel friend, Carl, admiring their new digs. The apartment, dressed in steel beams across the ceiling and walls, hardwood floors, and large windows that glisten with the New York City skyline, is perfect for a young couple.

Molly, a potter, played by Katie Postotnik, is a blonde-haired beauty in this production, far from the cropped brunette worn by Demi Moore in the original 1990 movie. Along with her beau Sam (Steven Grant Douglas), they immediately break out into song and a lazy minimalist two-step attempting to be excited and in love.

Soon after, the first effort at the classic song, "Unchained Melody" is performed by Sam and seems misplaced and very understated. After creating a crowded moment with Carl, (Robby Haltiwanger), having to witness their sappy love, the third wheel leaves the two alone and Molly begins poking at Sam with her longing to hear those three little words that he's never said, reassuring her of his feelings. Instead, he fills the air with, "Ditto" and dismisses her desires like useless dried up clay.

A quick scene between banker buds Sam and Carl reveals that Sam is worried about his accounts having too much money in them and prompts Carl to immediately offer to investigate. This ignites a fire in money-hungry Carl and begins the downward spiral for the threesome.

While Sam and Molly are enjoying a date night, a greasy thug by the name of Willie Lopez robs Sam of his wallet and a battle over Willie's gun ensues in the process. A gunshot rings out and Sam is killed while a mortified Mollie attempts to save him. Sam's ghost emerges from his body although he has yet to realize it's his body lying on the ground. Minutes later at the hospital, he's encircled by friendly singing spirits who help him understand that he's in between the world of life and death and just needs to accept the circumstances. I never thought singing dead people could be so entertaining. In death, they actually seemed to rouse more energy and display more talent than earlier tunes performed by the main characters.

When wandering onto a subway car, Sam encounters a territorial ghost, Charlotte's own Brandon R. Curry, who has some of the same abilities as a human, such as moving tangible objects, and Sam is fascinated by this. The illusions in this scene were some of the best I've witnessed in a theater production. The other passengers on the subway car move about in a way that could rival any fight scene in the The Matrix sequels. This is undoubtedly an excellent use of projected images.

Sam finally accepts this stage of existence when he happens upon psychic medium Oda Mae Brown (Carla R. Stewart), who hands-down steals the show from here on, as did Whoopi Goldberg who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the movie. Oda Mae's sisters, Clara and Louise, are just as entertaining and put on their own compelling performances without missing a step.

Throughout the production there are certainly wonderful moments, more so with the technical elements: lighting, illusions, and set design. I also can't deny enjoying Oda Mae Brown's performance along with the subway ghost coaching Sam on how to own his new abilities. That's where it ended for me. Not only was I disappointed by the casting of Molly and her lack of musical talent, but Sam didn't at all push my Patrick Swayze button. This was especially true with the second-rate pottery wheel scene which was another try at "Unchained Melody". If nothing else was spot on, this should have been the scene that was, but it was not. It was awkward and bland.

Lucky for me, Ghost, the movie can be reserved on any rainy day with a simple click on Netflix for a small fee. I may even be able to catch it on the tube free of charge.                    Review by Dawn Thornton

Dawn Thornton is a freelance writer in the Charlotte area. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Stage and Screen from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Uptown Magazine. Dawn enjoys reviewing theater productions, movies, and loves most things artistic.

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FUN WITH STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)
By Cory Riback, Vlado Kolenic, and Linda Ann Watt
Directed by Cory Riback and Linda Ann Watt
Booth Playhouse
March 28 - April 6, 2014

Fun with Stem was a challenging evening ostensibly created to invigorate young minds with the possibilities afforded by Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Though the brief forty-five minute performance moved quickly and kept the younger members of the audience engaged and entertained, the particular performance I attended seemed off kilter due to a collection of small mishaps. The cast and crew, however, never lost a beat or a smile.

I attended the production with both my wife and six year old daughter. My daughter was enraptured the entire forty-five minutes by the antics of Cory the Clown and his friends. Set inexplicably in dense rainforest, Cory the Clown (actor and co-creator of this show) and his perky band of young clown friends (played with unending energy and pep by Sam Pomerantz, Amanda Leigh Berkowitz, Devin Rickus, and Noelle Cassier) load in a collection of wooden boxes (that conveniently spell STEM!). They are soon met by Fiona the Science Buff (Cameron Pace) who rides in a truly marvelous bicycle contraption and portable lab. Fiona is there to study the healing properties of plants, and, also to watch a meteor shower—in the deepest bowels of the rainforest, but, it's children's theatre, it's okay. Already present at the start of the show are band members Vlado Kalenic (co-creator, musical director, and keyboard), Ethan Uslan (piano) and Ocie Davis (drums). The band is as dapper and eager as the rest of the cast.

Where the show is most successful is when it strays from any attempt at educating. The cast is energetic and engaging and work well as an ensemble. Cory the Clown shines when performing an extended and rather funny magic trick involving a proliferation of bottles, and, after demonstrating a robotic toucan (the program lists Riback as voicing this bird, but I don't remember it ever speaking), Cory brings on an "old school" marionette and proceeds to bring life to that tiny puppet through a beautiful vignette involving a puppet's yearning for flight. In a show about the wonders of technology, it was ironic that the most amazing moment on that stage involved a string marionette. The educational components seemed to be shoehorned into the production.

Some of this might have been due to technical problems. The program lists "Darrel the Barrel," who I assume is a talking barrel based on a picture of same on the tee-shirts being sold in the lobby, but Darrel was nowhere to be seen. I can only assume he was not operational this evening. Another extended moment involved Cory the Clown creating a Rube Goldberg-like contraption of pulleys (supposedly to illustrate Engineering). Cory struggled to find where to attach each component to the tower of boxes, and ultimately the invention did not function. Lighting and sound cues also seemed haphazard at times and an extended conversation with the band about math seemed suspiciously adlibbed and off-the-cuff.

Riback also serves as set designer and provides a lush and colorful rainforest backdrop and banks of oversized flowers. From costumes, to props, to the robotic toucan, it is a professional caliber production. It was clear that everyone involved was passionate about the project and that energy was contagious.

Ultimately, despite my misgivings about the technical problems with the production, I leave the final verdict to my youngest daughter. If a production is aimed at children, the only measure of success is how they respond to it. My six-year-old loved every moment of it. She adored Cory the Clown and kept talking about him on our drive home. She sat (literally) on the edge of her seat the entire time and laughed openly throughout. So taking away the jaundiced eye of the adult, the evening was a success, and, honestly, there is no nobler or more important calling for theatre artists than to bring their art to children. It is the lifeblood and hope for our art form.

The production continues into next weekend. I hope you can find time to take the young people in your life to see it.          Review by Tim Baxter-Ferguson

Tim Baxter-Ferguson is professor of Theatre at Limestone College and Chair of that program. He has had his plays produced throughout the United States and Canada.

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By Richard Wagner
Conducted by James Meena
Directed by Fenlon Lamb
Opera Carolina
Belk Theater
March 22, 27, 30, 2014

Ever been swept away by a romantic adventure movie with supernatural elements? Well, one of Wagner's earliest operas, from 1843, shows the pre-feminist spirit of today's Harlequin romance novel (or of the teen book and film series, Twilight) with ghosts on the high seas and a woman caught between two competing suitors through her father's greed. But it focuses on character, not plot, and on music (or a "soundtrack") that inspires sublime fantasies, with operatic voices longing for freedom, loyalty, and love. The Opera Carolina production (involving the Charlotte Gay Men's Chorus and Arizona Opera's scenery) provides excellent performances, intriguing visuals, and feminist ironies drawn out of the original's sincere passions.

Greer Grimsley stars as the Dutchman, who captains a ship of ghosts because he swore, in the 1700s, that he would sail around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, even if it took forever. So he was condemned by Satan to continue sailing beyond death, but with the dead, until saved by the love of a loyal woman (or until the Day of Judgment). He is only allowed ashore once every 7 years to find her. Grimsley's profoundly strong, bass-baritone voice, long black hair, and tortured, yet stoic poses make him perfect for the role.

He's matched by the powerfully clear resonance and broad gestures of soprano Elizabeth Kataria as Senta, a woman who falls in love, from a young age, with the image of the Dutchman in a legend she's told and painted portrait in her home. Then she finds a ghostly idol bringing her dream to life—and death.

Kristopher Irmiter brings sincere opportunism, yet comical twists, plus impressive bass-baritone tones, to the role of Daland, Senta's father. He meets the Dutchman and his ghost ship at sea, while returning home with his own ship. But, eager for the Dutchman's treasure, he sells his daughter to the stranger, despite the spooks and tattered sails on the other's vessel. When home again, he waddles delightedly, almost penguin-like, encouraging his daughter to marry the "stranger" the very next day.

Tenor Jason Wickson as Erik, Senta's loyal protector on land during her dad's absence, stresses the passionate ironies of this patriarchal fable, giving it more interest today. He insists that she marry him, due to his loyalty, and warns her about the stranger, seen as the "devil" in Erik's prophetic nightmare. But Senta (like a "Team Edward" fan of Twilight) chooses the abject, sublimely cursed Dutchman instead of Erik, following her father's wish and her own teen fantasies to be the one to save the stranger—as an object of "beauty" and "truth" exchanged between the men.

So, the Dutchman, who sings initially about wanting to die and offering pirates his treasure if they would just kill him, ends up using his treasure to buy the loyal love of Senta, after she rejects the loyalty of Erik. Then the Dutchman rejects her, when he learns of Erik, making her prove her loyalty by dying—so he can live, freed from his ghost ship curse, and be on land more often to find another woman.

Director Fenlon Lamb, scene designer Peter Dean Beck, and lighting designer Michael Baumgarten stress such ironies with their startling set contexts and projections. During the overture, a huge picture (projected on the scrim) shifts within its frame, between waves, ship, and sky, while Senta is revealed behind that surface reaching out toward her fantasy portrait and various men onstage. When the ghost ship arrives alongside Daland's, its tattered burlap sails and zombie-stiff sailors, like singing Greek columns (with voices almost lost under the orchestra), foreshadow the patriarchal sufferings in subsequent scenes of living groups of women and men.

The second act shows dozens of women spinning thread in Daland's home, like in a textile factory, plus the big Dutchman portrait that so entrances Senta, while her nurse sings to the others that "spinning" well will get them a good husband. ("You spin" in German is a colloquial phrase today for "Youre crazy.") And then, the lighting shifts from ghostly white to bloody red as the Dutchman grips the back of a chair—meeting the beautiful object of his ironic passions there, an "angel" who is too true to live.

Balancing operatic polish, romantic beauty, and feminist critique, this production of a famous Wagnerian work might also make us wonder whether our current gender, racial, nationalist, and consumer ideals could be a tricky deal with the devil, putting a further twist on the Germanic sublime.          Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards. He blogs at

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By Neil LaBute
Directed by Tommy Foster
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
March 6 - 29, 2014

A few words can change a lifetime. Especially if they concern a woman's face not being pretty and they are spoken by her boyfriend. Fights, fantasies, and many vulgarities swirl around the stage for two hours about this incident, which occurs offstage, before the play begins. Soap opera twists and various comic moments add to the play's emphasis on how women today, in the "third wave" of feminism, still see themselves as swimming in a fishbowl, finding their value through the male gaze.

Indeed, audience members are given a fish in a bag of water as their tickets to enter. And Steph (Elizabeth Byland), the woman scorned, threatens to smash her boyfriend's fishbowl, while grilling him about his comment to his buddy that she has a "regular face," not stunningly "hot" like their new blue-collar co-worker. But her boyfriend, Greg (Nick Culp), insists that he also said he'd rather have Steph than a million bucks. This valuing of her inner beauty does not please or appease her, however.

Greg's buddy, Kent (Grant Watkins), has a beautiful wife, Carly (Katherine Murdoch), yet lusts after their new co-worker far more than Greg—even to the point of betraying his wife while she works the night shift. But Greg, having lost Steph due to Kent's lust and Carly's gossip, is more loyal than vengeful, so he resists telling Carly about Kent's betrayal—until she lures it out of him.

Murdoch plays various shades of seduction with both men, bringing tears to play, too, when she gets what she desires yet dreads. Likewise, Byland shows a remarkable range between reckless fury and quiet shifts in awareness. The set, by Tim Baxter-Ferguson (a friend of mine) changes greatly, too, on a revolving stage, between a bedroom, staff break-room, mall food court, Italian restaurant, and baseball field.

The lobby display references Steph's job at a beauty parlor and the fish in the bowl. Yet, corrugated metal walls, warehouse boxes, and "Caution Forklift" signs meet the spectators as they enter the performance space, suggesting the harsh edges and heavy baggage that are revealed behind pretty surfaces and insecurities in the women onstage and the men who love or lust beyond them. The audience is involved, too, in the mall and baseball field settings.

I often wanted more from the script that would develop its tragicomic paradoxes (like in a Chekhov play with its passionate fools). Yet I admired the actors' sincerity in various scenes and the set's design in presenting them, even when I felt like I'd had enough of the soap and wanted to change the channel to another opera.          Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards. He blogs at

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Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Weber
Directed by Michael Grandage
Choreographed by Rob Ashford
Blumenthal Performing Arts
March 4 - 9, 2014

A rock opera, narrated by a Marxist revolutionary, about an Argentinian feminist, married to a military dictator? What's this theatre community coming to? Well, it's a Broadway revival of the 1978 album musical by the creators of Jesus Christ Superstar (1970). In this tragic rock opera, the anti-hero is a woman who rises from poverty to become a radio personality and then First Lady and "saint" to the Argentine crowds. Yet she uses them for power and manipulation, giving an "escape" for the people who idolize her, with "illusions, not solutions." She improves their immediate poverty, handing out cash in one scene, but does not make changes in the long term-according to the show's narrator, Che.

Eva Perón was married to Argentine Colonel Juan Perón from 1945 until her death from ovarian cancer in 1952, at the age of 33. Juan Perón became President of Argentina in 1946, serving two terms until 1955 and again in 1973-74, when he was ousted by a coup. Che (a common Argentine interjection meaning "dude") is not Che Guevara, the famous Argentine Marxist who was instrumental in the Cuban Revolution (1953-59) and was executed by Bolivians in 1967 while trying to lead a violent revolution there. But he may be the Brechtian ghost of Che in 1978, as a narrator critical of Evita's passionate rise to fame.

Evita's various passions, as a poor girl from a small town climbing the social ladder in the big city, are brought beautifully to the stage with Weber's music, especially in her famous balcony song: "Dont Cry for Me, Argentina". But the title and lyrics of that song also show the Brechtian ironies that Rice puts into the show. Evita gains power from the crowd's attachment to their Madonna. (In fact, the pop star Madonna played this role in the 1996 film version.) She wants them to cry for her, with both joy and sorrow, even as she sings to them not to-while strong and weak. She appeals to the theatre audience in these ways, too, increasing the paradoxes.

The current touring production stresses the power of Weber's music and Evita's star appeal more than Che's critical jabs. Josh Young as Che melds his voice beautifully with Caroline Bowman's, as Evita, and with the other excellent performers. Bowman puts her own caustic twists on the character, as she gets gifts from and gives her body to various men, on her climb to Mt. Perón, as she revels in the pleasures of the summit, and as she starts to fall during her "Rainbow Tour" of Europe. Bowman also evokes great sympathy as the dying Evita, again putting a passionate polish on Che's edgy insights. Sean MacLaughlin is equally impressive as Juan, the loving and admiring husband, yet competitor with Evita for the people's hearts.

The heavy rock beats, tinged with tango and burlesque, sometimes make Rice's lyrics hard to hear. But the dancing, with many leg and torso entanglements, expresses much beyond words: both sexily engaging and politically ironic, like the tension between the three main characters. Other performers play multiple roles with great dexterity, in this series of songs and dances with no spoken dialog, demanding quick changes of costume, character, and mood.

The set by Christopher Oram (who also designed costumes) is simple yet powerful: moving from a small town tavern to the big city mansion, with its many interior scenes, private and public, plus a high exterior balcony for crowd spectacles. Historical photos and videos are displayed, with projection design by Zachary Borovay, to bring us into the time period and its sharp contradictions. Indeed, this is often a strident show, with its muscular marching mobs and a witty yet mocking narrator, demanding various perspectives from the audience to piece the whole together or to embrace its fragments.

So why this revival now? Is it time for a female Christ-figure in our country? (It's intriguing how much of this rock opera, in its sounds, story, and ideas, is akin to Rice and Weber's earlier Superstar hit with Jesus, Judas, Mary, and the High Priests.) Might a mass media personality become a politician here, like Maggie Thatcher's friend, Ronald Reagan, who rose to the top at the time this musical was created? If only Hillary could sing. Or Sarah Palin? But then we'd need a Che, too, with Guevara's face being an icon already, on many consumer items. Like a ghost across the centuries and the Americas.                  Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards. He blogs at

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By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Jill Bloede
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
February 20 - March 15, 2014

Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage's most recent play is very funny, and it amuses while recalling the experiences of all the forgotten or uncredited African American actresses in Hollywood past and present. We first meet Vera Stark and Gloria Mitchell as they run Gloria's lines for a potential role in an antebellum epic entitled "The Belle of New Orleans." Several things are quickly evident. Gloria is a capricious and spoiled beauty whose cultured innocence is a thin facade. Vera is smart and ambitious. She knows she has inherent talent, but her skin color limits her chances for that elusive big break. Vera works for Gloria, but their interactions indicate a long established intimacy that runs much deeper than social convention will accept.

The first act is set in 1933, and the second in both 1973 and 2003. In the first act, Gloria (played with layers of arch affectation by Caroline Bower) angles for and lands the title role of the film within the play. Vera also hopes for a role in the film, even if it means playing a slave. Brandi Feemster, as Vera, conveys a lovely balance of hope and self-awareness as she uses what connections she can to reach her goals. Miss Feemster has the stage presence to convincingly play Vera as an actress with substance, "a leading lady in a maid's uniform." And sure enough, The Belle of New Orleans becomes her breakout role.

The second act is another thing altogether. One side of the stage is set for an academic panel that reviews footage of Vera's 1973 appearance on The Brad Donovan Show. That appearance is played live on the opposite side of the stage, while scenes from The Belle and subsequent events in Vera's life are projected onto a centerstage screen. The counterpointed scenes of scholarly commentary and Vera's on-camera unravelling ask the audience to consider uncomfortable truths concerning the prejudice that relegate women (and men) of color to roles that perpetuate demeaning stereotypes.

Director Jill Bloede has amassed a very strong supporting cast, all of whom play dual roles. Gerard Hazelton's Leroy flirts with Vera outside the stage door. His slick charm has an undercurrent of sincerity, and when the character is reprised in a later interview, we see that same sincerity overlaid with bitterness. Mr. Hazelton's Herb, the panel's moderator, is droll and brilliantly stylized. Erika Ross is a standout as Vera's friend. As Lottie, she has some of the best lines in the play, and she delivers them with great verve. She is also splendid as panel member Carmen, whose reserved pronouncements ring like bells.

Iesha Hoffman's insouciantly played Anna Mae has the light complexion (and audacity) of a woman who can "pass" as a South American vixen, and her impassioned portrayal of Afua, angry and poetic, is something to see as she struts and frets her moments on the stage. Robert Simmons plays Slasvick, a big-time producer whose spitting mad delivery exemplifies the depression era hegemony of movie scions like Selznick and Mayer. A versatile actor, he's wonderfully smarmy as talk show host Brad Donovan. Johnny Huber plays director Max, a man whose artistic vanity knows no limits. Later, his portrayal of Peter is pitch perfect as the stoner rock star who is Vera's foil in her last television appearance.

Production values are high in this show. Jill Bloede's direction elicits all the laughs the script can deliver, while giving the underlying substance room for expression. Kudos to Heidi O'Hare for costume design, Hallie Gray for lighting, and Mike Snow and Catherine Colley for their excellent set. A special mention is due to Jay Thomas and Chuck Bludsworth for their audio visual work.          Review by Lydia Arnold

Lydia Arnold is pleased to be a contributor to ARTS à la Mode. Her heart has always been with the arts, particularly theatre and the artists that make it happen. Writing about theatre, any particular production, is always in service to the art form, and she hopes her "take" encourages more people to take a deeper look, and put an emphasis on the performing arts.

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By Athol Fugurd, John Kani, Winston Ntshona
Directed by Corlis Hayes, Michael R. Simmons
Carolina Actors Studio (CAST)
February 21 - March 15, 2014

During the height of apartheid, between the 1950s and 1980s, the country of South Africa was in great turmoil, just as other parts of Africa are today. Except the turmoil existed between races. Citizens were segregated into classes; they were considered black, white, coloured or Indian. Mirroring American culture at the time, black Africans, just like black Americans during the Jim Crow era, were inferior to every other class of people. During this awful period, millions of blacks and other non-whites were forced to move out of their homes in one of the largest mass movements on record. They were also forced to carry identity books, much like a passport or personal identification card, that ultimately dictated much of the direction of their lives.

The production, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, tells the story of a black man passing through the African Township of New Brighton looking, unsuccessfully, for work. The production opens on a small platform with a little wooden table and two chairs center stage. At stage right, another table houses a bowl with water and a modern camera. The back wall is plastered with black and white photos of people who had visited over the years.

Styles the photographer, played by Devin Clark, who owns the studio, reads a newspaper article and reminisces about his time working in a Ford Motor plant. He jokes about meeting Henry Ford and the upper management, antics that were invisible within the facility. After several minutes, Styles' thoughts are interrupted by a man who wanders into his studio looking to have his photo taken. Sizwe Bansi, played by Ron McClelland, is nervous and tongue-tied while he attempts to explain who he is and why he needs the photo.

During the next hour, with no intermission, flashbacks occur, two associates get drunk in a bar, and one urinates on a dead body in the alley then lifts the dead man's identity book. And if that doesn't peak any interest, maybe the intense delivery of Ron McClelland's emotional oration will, along with him stripping down to his unmentionables, just as South African society has stripped Sizwe Bansi of his manhood.

Sizwe Bansi Is Dead was originally produced in 1972 in Cape Town, South Africa but the effects of the premise, apartheid, literally meaning "apart-hood", unfortunately still reverberate today.

Although the two-man cast delivered the message probably as written, the play may have been more powerful without much of the fluffed intro and more of the actual storyline. Some of the information was watered down, such as the idea of jobs, and who could obtain one and who could not. I would have preferred to see different characters and props that reflected the specific era. In the end, the production is worth seeing, but could be wonderful with a few small tweaks.                   Review by Dawn Thornton

Dawn Thornton is a freelance writer in the Charlotte area. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Stage and Screen from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Uptown Magazine. Dawn enjoys reviewing theater productions, movies, and loves most things artistic.

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Book by Mike Artell
Adapted for the stage with book, music, lyrics by Joan Cushing
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
McColl Family Theatre
February 21 - March 9, 2014

This story is a charming retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale — Cajun style. What is fun about the play is the "spice" that's added by changing locations and going from little girl and wolf to duckling and alligator. Petite Rouge (Cassandra Howley Wood, an exuberant, spunky heroine) is the youngster who wants to go out into the big bad world but is held back by Mrs. Duck (Lucianne Hamilton, skillfully playing multiple characters). She finally agrees to let Petite Rouge visit her sick Grandmère with gumbo, extra hot sauce, cornbread and sausage in her basket. But she will only be allowed to go if TeJean the cat (Isaac Gay, excellent) accompanies her. She is warned over and over to travel straight to Grandmère's, but we all know how well children listen to their parents.

On a small boat navigating the bayou, they meet various characters, the most threatening of which is the smarmy Claude the gourmet gator (Mark Sutton, a consummate villain), who is craving a meal of duckling. The also meet gator hunters, ride on a riverboat, attend Mardi Gras, and finally make it to Grandmère's house.

Director/choreographer Ron Chisholm brings his signature creative touches and humor to the show. Especially fun is the coordinated percussion using metal cans, though the recent snow storm cut into rehearsal time. The ensemble of Lucianne Hamilton, Jany Bacallao, and Kyla Piscatelli give it a good effort that will improve over time. The lively music organized by musical director Drina Keen fits the spirit of the production.

The set design by Andrew Gibbon and Tim Parati, who is also the scenic artist, is inspired, and along with the costumes by Magda Guichard, and the lighting by Eric Winkenwerder, are additional stars of the show. Where else would you see tall, moss-covered trees moving in a swamp, and an alligator costume with red glowing eyes, and gigantic tail? They do exactly what a children's production should do — spark the imagination of the audience watching. That includes the big kids among us.

An extra treat was provided by playwright Joan Cushing, who adapted the book. She attended opening night, giving children and parents a chance to meet and thank her in person for this delightful play.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is co-founder and film/theatre review editor of ARTS à la Mode. Vive les arts.

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4.48 PSYCHOSIS (Adult Content)
By Sarah Kane
Directed by Robin Witt
Assistant Director Kara Foster
UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture
Department of Theatre
Robinson Hall, Black Box
February 19 -27, 2014

Innovative, "experiential" theatre is not rampant in Charlotte. So it is always interesting when productions appear that take risks with the form. (Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST) is the only theatre in town that consistently invites an audience to participate from the minute they walk through the door.) It turns out the college setting at UNC Charlotte is an ideal match for Sarah Kane's disturbing 4.48 Psychosis, the playwright's last work about clinical depression before her suicide at 28.

The play has been described by one critic, rather dismissively, as a 75-minute suicide note. I would describe it more as a wail of pain to an indifferent universe. Others will undoubtedly see the play in their own way. That is a strength of the writing, because although it is highly personal material, it can be interpreted however the audience chooses. The play itself is written in an unconventional format with 24 sections rather than straight dialogue.

What director Robin Witt has done is to divide the play into three sections. Before entering the Black Box at Robinson Hall each audience member receives a wrist band in one of three colors. Are we now the Subject? A guide takes each group to one of three stations where the scenes take place simultaneously, then rotate when the scene is completed onto the next section. The effect is discordant, jarring, unnerving as you try to listen to what is being said, but other insistent voices interrupt your concentration. Is this what its like?

My first station was the Waiting Room with the nameless Subject (Ashleigh Adams, a young actor to watch), interacting with her Doctor (Brittany Petticrew). The sessions provide no relief from the unrelenting progression of her illness. It does provide fragments of dialogue allowing a perception into her suffering, f*** my father for f****** up my life for good and f*** my mother for not leaving him, but most of all, f*** you God for making me love a person who does not exist.

The next scene Dancing on Glass, is more abstract with the Subject (Caroline Block, providing the most physically demanding role) conveying time spent in a hospital, being given medications that don't help, acting out when nothing works, trying to cooperate, but unable to achieve relief. A masked chorus, (Maurli Davenport, Savannah Jillani, Beth Killion, Connor Pate, a five-member ensemble who directed themselves) scolds, threatens, distracts her.

The final scene, Cage of Tears has the Subject (Aubrey Young, good job) and her Alter Ego (Elizabeth "Piper" Parks, also well done), locked together in a physical space where the Subject has no escape, going back and forth but making no progress. Where can you go when there is no place to hide?

All the scenes are intense, drawing in the audience. It is well worth staying for the talkback afterwards. The people who did stay were astute in what they took from the play. For those fortunate enough not to have known clinical depression, the play allows the audience to experience the long nightmare. Another benefit of the production is to aid in understanding the disease, allowing one to recognize the symptoms and suggest mental health treatment sooner for self or others. It's not just "the blues" we all experience at times. Sarah Kane was unable to integrate her different "selves" or make the meaningful connections needed to save her own life, but she left behind words that create a deep empathy for her plight.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is co-founder and film/theatre review editor of ARTS à la Mode. Vive les arts.

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By Katori Hall
Directed by Lou Bellamy
Blumenthal Performing Arts
Booth Playhouse
February 4 - March 2, 2014

It's difficult to create a miracle play today, presenting the martyrdom of a modern saint. How accurate should it be to history, how revealing of the human behind the holy? But Katori Hall's 2009 play about Martin Luther King, in his last night alive, is full of surprises. It starts realistically with the audience as the fourth wall of King's Lorraine Motel room in Memphis, April 3, 1968. Then it eventually shifts to the surreal, with comical twists. Though also somewhat preachy, it ends with a spectacular, mystical vision across a half century of King's legacy, from his lifetime to ours.

The set design, by Vicki Smith, is the star of this play's magical twists, from historical motel room to various cosmic dimensions. It starts with a fully furnished room: two beds with matching beige curtains, a chair and side table, desk drawers, a small stool, and the sink area of the bathroom. The motel's street sign can also be seen outside the windows, as can the balcony, where Dr. King paces before the play begins, like a ghost of himself even before his death. King (James T. Alfred) takes a legal pad from his briefcase on the bed and talks to the audience, as a mirror to his uncertain identity, while planning a speech. He shows his paranoia, perhaps warranted, checking for audio bugs in his room. But the audience of the future is watching him—and another Other from above.

When the motel maid, Camae (Erika LaVonn), arrives with a coffee for King, his attraction to her with overt flirting, after talking with his wife and daughter on the phone, shows his vulnerability to temptation and family betrayal. She smokes cigarettes and drinks whiskey with the preacher, teasing him about their class differences, admiring his fame, and apologizing about her vulgar slips in speech. But she also dons his suit coat, stands on the bed, and mimics his preaching in funny and challenging ways. When she calls him, "Michael," he suspects she's a spy. Yet he and the audience are in for a much bigger surprise about her identity and where she came from.

Both actors do fine jobs performing with and against the expectations for a famous, historical character and his newfound, end of life friend. Alfred's makeup line distracts from the play's initial realism and his preaching becomes somewhat tedious toward the end of the 100-minute, no intermission show. And yet, the playfulness of LaVonn brings out various sides to Alfred's fictional MLK, making him sympathetic and admirable in new ways—not simply a holy martyr for the Civil Rights Movement, but a complex, tragicomic hero in the eyes of God and future souls.          Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards. He blogs at

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Book by Chris D'Arienzo
Blumenthal Performing Arts
Belk Theater
February 21 - 23, 2014

Opening on Broadway in 2009, after lengthy development in Los Angeles, Rock of Ages: The Musical has developed an enthusiastic following. It's a lighthearted jukebox musical based on the glam rockers of the 1980s such as Poison, Journey, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar and many, many others. The narrative is paper thin and serves as a tenuous vehicle to get from one musical number to the other. This isn't really a problem, since our intrepid narrator Lonny Barnett (played with sleazy aplomb by Andrew Sklar) reminds the audience through direct address that nothing on stage is to be taken too seriously.

The basic story follows hopeful rocker wannabe Drew Boley (Dominique Scott) who has the desire but not the drive to follow his dreams until he meets equally hopeful actress Sherrie Christian (Shannon Mullen) who spurs him on to greater things. The story revolves around the impending closing of the famous Bourbon Room—a nightclub that features live music—by an evil developer.

As mentioned, the story doesn't really matter other than to set up some jokes and set up increasingly over-the-top production numbers such as glam rock standards "Anyway you want it" and "The Final Countdown," and many, many others. Any child of the eighties will be instantly familiar with it all.

The performers do evoke the necessary eighties rock look and sound. Dominique Scott is earnest and sweet as Drew, but wails convincingly in his rock solos. Shannon Mullen's Sherrie is sweet as pie but rocks the rocker chick persona. Joshua Hobbs as the perverted rock superstar Stacee Jaxx manages to convince the audience he is more than a set of muscles and manages to shine in a few numbers—and to have the most offensive joke in the show involving an underage girl. I won't list it here. Andrew Sklar's Lonny Barnett provides good narration and keeps the show moving. He has great chemistry with his partner in crime, Dennis (played with "dude-like" serenity by Brian Ashton Miller). Sklar and Miller get more than one opportunity to play against each other and they combine broad comedy with sincerity.

The secondary characters, though well-performed, seem tacked on and get in the way of the flow of the show. German developer Hertz (played with appropriate German gruffness by Phillip Peterson) wants to sanitize the Sunset Strip with the help of his flaming heterosexual son, Franz (yes, I meant heterosexual). Tanner Hussar's accent came and went throughout the production, but his fabulousness was a welcome contrast to the hard rocking mood. Ashley McManus also stands out as Waitress 1. She has an amazing presence and voice.

Technically the production is solid. Beowulf Boritt's unit set suggests both the exterior strip as well as the interior Bourbon Room. Based on his design from the Broadway production, it is as glam and gritty as its NYC counterpart. Jason Lyons' lighting is also recreated here, and manages to evoke the necessary scene changes as well as suggest the most lavish rock concerts imaginable complete with lasers, fog, strobes, and hundreds of lighting effects. Gregory Gale's costumes are spot on—evoking eighties rock with a Vegas-sized exuberance.

Rock of Ages is a solid jukebox musical that delivers on its promise of hardrocking entertainment and fun. There's no pretense of solid bookwriting or pathos. I could care less about the central characters, but I did have a good time from beginning to end. As a child of the eighties, who remembers when MTV first became a thing, I appreciated the wine cooler infused ride down memory lane. If you can keep you expectations of compelling narrative and character in check, you'll enjoy this raucous show that provides loving homage to the eighties and especially to the glam rock gods of that time.          Review by Tim Baxter-Ferguson

Tim Baxter-Ferguson is professor of Theatre at Limestone College and Chair of that program. He has had his plays produced throughout the United States and Canada.

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By C.S. Lewis
Adapted for the stage by Max McLean and Brian Watkins
Directed by Bill Castelino
Fellowship for the Performing Arts
Knight Theater
February 15 - 16, 2014

If you're a fan of C.S. Lewis, especially of his metaphysical dream-story about the separation (or "divorce") between heaven and hell, then this very inventive and well-produced adaptation will probably be appealing. If you believe in a Christian worldview, you'll certainly find it intriguing. Or if you'd just like a vision of afterlife possibilities, with brief references to God, then this play provides strange lands, troubled characters, and yet hopeful views of human wisdom.

But it's a challenge to watch. The play begins as a dream, with three actors playing the narrator, who tells about his dream in the past tense—even though we see it as present. The narrator travels on a bus from "Grey Town" to the "outskirts of Heaven." The three actors alternate as the narrator and over a dozen other characters, including George McDonald, a favorite author of the narrator who becomes his guide, like Virgil to Dante.

Each "ghost" that they meet bears a story with intense emotions, embedded in the past, which we only get a glimpse of. So this play is like watching fragments of many dramas, with some humorous moments, and many insightful ideas. It does not have a complete dramatic arc of focused conflict, which we usually expect onstage. And yet, how many dreams do?

The scenic design, by Kelly James Tighe, is stunning—with exceptional use of video imagery behind the actors, with a book and clock frame around them, and with simple yet key elements onstage (such as the grass at heaven's edge that does not bend under the ghosts' feet). The actors' performances are outstanding, too, whether they (Tom Beckett, Christa ScottƽReed, and Joel Rainwater) play refractions of the narrator or other ghosts that he meets. Their voices are amplified in an odd way, making them even more ethereal, yet real onstage—in the flying bus and on the sharp lawn where they might find heaven.

There's no judgment scene, no angels and devils as servants or prison guards. But we see human souls who are "thickening" as they acquire wisdom and are sent (how or by whom?) to welcome and advise the newcomers, like our narrator and others on his bus. This play stresses human choices, giving various examples of characters who remain so attached to notions of self, rightness, propaganda, or past deeds that they cannot move onward in joy—and choose, it seems, to continue in a hell of their own making.

For example, an artist must give up her claim to fame on earth, in order to realize she's now in heaven and does not need to paint its beauty if she wants to be truly happy. Even a mother's love for her son shows too much attachment, which causes her suffering, although she tries to believe in a "god of love."

It's rare today to see onstage such an earnest metaphysical view, with significant humanist insights (resonating with Buddhism as much as Christianity). Lewis's story finds a compelling adaptation here, even if it's not a fully engaging play. It's presented instead as a modern man's allegory of the soul, with many postmodern devices, showing a world where we all might end up someday.          Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards. He blogs at

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By Y York
Directed by Sidney Horton
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
Wells Fargo Playhouse
January 24 - February 9, 2014

Tonia Bridge, played by Janalyn Moonie Walton, is an artistic, rambunctious yet impressionable 9 year old girl growing up in 1964 Black America. Her father Leon, played by Bobby Tyson, is a postal worker with a "fed-up" chip on his shoulder and doubt in his mind that his daughter should strive so hard. Tonia's schizophrenic mother, played by Darlene Parker, is obsessed with a white doll that she's named Katie King and what seems to be an etiquette book that her daughter must read every day to succeed in life. She is little help to Tonia.

It's Tonia's 9th birthday and instead of being an excited child, Tonia tries to convince her mother that she doesn't need a birthday party and has already decided not to invite anyone for fear that her mother will have a schizophrenic episode in the middle of the celebration. That same evening, Tonia's Aunt Franny, played by Veda Covington, visits and presents her with an island doll. She has short cropped hair, speaks French and wears a colorful billowing dress that the young girl longs for.

After the threat of a disastrous party has passed, Tonia sets her sights on the school science fair that her teacher has encouraged her to participate in. Her father, who has a defeatist outlook on life, attempts to deter Tonia by telling her that no one likes a smart girl and that her science project of rainbows has nothing to do with science and should not be entered into the competition.

Staying steadfast on the idea of entering the science fair, Tonia and her playmate Theo go on a hunt for the perfect items to add to her project in hopes of proving her father wrong and showing everyone else that she can soar beyond what is expected of girls.

While the Wells Fargo Playhouse is a small intimate venue, the set — a living room and dining room combination — is adequate. A set of stairs shown in the foreground leads to the home's second floor where mother Alma is always resting her mind or putting Katie King to bed. Although the main character and her playmate Theo are both 9 years old, their demeanor seemed a bit more innocent than most children that I know who are the same age. Their dispositions are more like that of 5 year olds — overly playful and naive. Then again, I didn't know any 9 year olds in 1964.

Since my newly 10 year old niece accompanied me to the production, I asked her what she thought after we congratulated members of the cast upon exiting the theater. "I liked it," she said. Unfortunately, she couldn't explain what she liked about it, which is ironically how I felt. The play imparted a great message to young girls: that they can be just as successful and even surpass boys in the male-dominated subject of science, or in any area they choose. However, there were a few confusing moments surrounding the science project and why certain items were utilized, as well as unanswered questions about her mother's illness.

I found the play vague in some areas, but I was excited to be among so many children that enjoyed the production, and were smiling after the cast took a bow.                    Review by Dawn Cauthen

Dawn Cauthen is a freelance writer in the Charlotte area currently working on a screenplay, a novel, and many freelance articles. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Stage and Screen from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Uptown Magazine. Dawn enjoys reviewing theater productions, movies, and loves most things artistic.

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By Neil LaBute
Directed by Justin Robert Attkisson
Appalachian Creative Theatre
UpStage at NoDa
January 24 - 26, 2014

As crass as it sounds, for some tragedy can present opportunity. Such is the premise of the Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat. The play opens in the early morning hours the day after 9/11 in New York City. Ben (Dan O'Sullivan), married and father of two, is at the apartment of his lover, and boss, Abby (Caroline Renfro). He was supposed to be at one the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center on business, but stopped to have a tryst with Abby. They learn together of the catastrophic event, causing them shock, grief, and a bitter, brutal, reassessment of their relationship.

Playwright LaBute doesn't play a delicate hand. His dialogue is more Mamet than Tennessee Williams as his characters spew insults at each other. Tender moments are few. Yet, what begins as two people intellectualizing random thoughts, then grinding through their history, ends with a sobering reality. 9/11 here is used as a backdrop, a device to show the true character of these people. It may be a cynical tactic, but a writer could imagine many scenarios coming about because of the disaster. Up to now there haven't been many produced. It could be not enough time has passed for most of us to fully take in the huge scope of what happened and the lives affected. It is still too raw. But the purpose of plays, in Mr. LaBute's hands, is not to make us comfortable, but to make us pay attention.

Director Justin Robert Attkisson does a fine job drawing out the essence of these two, often unlikable characters, through the actors. Dan O'Sullivan continues to bring new dimensions to his performances. He is able to show Ben's humanity even through his selfishness. Caroline Renfro strikes just the right note as a career woman, used to being in control, whose self-protective shell begins to crack. The actors have a solid rapport onstage that makes the play work.

The long narrow space at UpStage, divided into separate areas is used to good advantage with the set design of Justin Attkisson and Amy Fine. The areas allow enough movement for what is basically two people talking/arguing for 90 minutes. Also helpful is the lighting by Christopher Anderson and sound by FroShow Productions.

This debut production by Appalachian Creative Theatre is the first show of their season. We congratulate them on a successful introduction to their company. It is a job well done and deserves your notice and support.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is co-founder and film/theatre review editor of ARTS à la Mode. Vive les arts.

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By Marc Camoletti, translated by Beverly Cross and Francis Evans
Directed by Tony Wright
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre
January 16 to February 8, 2014

In a cold winter month, CAST is warming its audiences with a classic French farce from the 1960s. There are no deep meanings here, but a cautionary tale for men's polygamous fantasies, with a nostalgic look at the "Dating Game" era-when free love, while flying fearfully, eventually found a truer grounding.

Three lovely "air-hostesses," from America, Italy, and Germany, are all engaged to the same dashing Frenchman, Bernard (Emmanuel Barbe). They, of course, do not know about each other. He keeps them separate with an airline timetable. But then Robert, his friend from Wisconsin (Joe Rux), visits him in Paris and can barely keep his menage a secret. And yet, Bernard gets vital help from this friend, and from his sassy maid (Polly Adkins), to keep the ladies separate when airline schedules bring them home together.

The audience is brought into the spirit of the play with air-hostesses in the lobby, boarding passes as tickets, and a blue room with seven doors onstage, as Bernard's abode with his live-in maid and three spouses to be. The farce lifts higher with the entrance of each sexy fiancée, but especially when the German, Gretchen (Karina Roberts-Caporino), takes a liking to Robert, as does the American, Gloria (Mandy Kendall)—with some powerful kisses. The Italian fiancée, Gabriella (Katie Bearden, a former student of mine at UNC Charlotte), also gets the laughter aloft with her suspicious stares, tempestuous poses, and guilty wilting.

Stereotypes turn into caricatures here. But each woman displays a strong will: the American to remain independent, the German to get her best option (while restraining her passions until the right time), and the Italian to turn a confirmed bachelor into the marrying type. Barbe's Bernard becomes increasingly sympathetic and yet hilarious as he is brought to his knees through the foolish hubris of trying to control these three cagey gals. And Rux's Robert brings a precise mixture of Midwest shyness and American-abroad wildness to the Parisian door'slamming party. Adkins's fretting maid, as confused cook of a different dish depending on which fiancée is home, also mixes the madness well throughout.

Plot twists here can be guessed far in advance. But this farce can still be enjoyed with increasing surprises through the actors' skillful energies, the director's development of their body language, and designer Rebecca Randolph's color-coded airline costumes, flight bags, and negligees. So, check your expectations and travel light—to find fresh smiles, quick wit, and sexy leg-room on this CAST flight.          Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards. He blogs at

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By Sharr White
Directed by Michael R. Simmons
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre
January 9 - February 1, 2014

Who are you if your memories become confused? Current neuroscience shows that our memories are reconstructions—not direct replays of experiences. In White's play, a female neurologist experiences this problem first hand, with the deconstruction of her memory and identity. As with the film, Memento, the audience of this play might identify with the protagonist through a disruptive narrative that jumps to different points in time, constructs conflicting events, and projects multiple characters on the same actor (or actor's voice offstage).

At times, Dr. Juliana Smithton (Marla Brown, a friend of mine) relives a lecture she gave on the Virgin Island of St. Thomas, pitching a new drug for halting the spread of amyloid plaque in the brain's hippocampus, which causes memory loss. She obsesses about a young woman in a yellow bikini in the audience, who seems to trigger Juliana's own symptomatic rage, confusion, and memory problems. This thrusts the theatre audience into contentious meetings with her philandering husband (Jeff Johnston), a younger woman treating her (Frances Bendert), whom she accuses of having an affair with him, and others in her mental deterioration (with minor male characters played by Jeffrey Woodard).

The theatre lobby sets up the audience's journey with Juliana into the sharp angles of memory fragmentation with an airport waiting area and a ticket for an airline flight to St. Thomas. The hallway en route to the theatre shows further signs of the sinister journey: images for medicine, DNA helixes, and question marks. But the set inside the theatre is more abstract, with triangular black stands and a low white brick wall suggesting hospitalization, plus a floor with blue arcs containing red and pink dots and a central white rectangle (reflecting the video screens on the walls above the audience).

Much of the show becomes likewise intriguing, yet not a full development of the script. The actors perform at high levels of intensity, with subtle ironies and witty moments mostly overflown. Juliana's charm as a pitchwoman, sophistication as a scientist, and yet feral rage at family members and at her own mind's betrayal might provide more intricate twists in this show, along with its leaps in time and mix of different realities. Her husband Ian's attempts to help her, like her doctor's diagnosing of her, also involve ironic elements—as does her offstage daughter's use of Mahler to signal a final rebellion and an onstage stranger's use of food and role-playing to partly heal Juliana in her former home.

But the poignant buds of joy in this tragic mystery need more nurturing, with kind caretakers and wistful video memories eventually pointing beyond the thorns of jealousy, betrayal, and rage. Hopefully, audiences in the month of January will help the actors to grow this play toward springtime insights, by exploring with them the brain's complex acts of intersubjective balances.          Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards. He blogs at

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Book by John Cameron Mitchell
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Trask
Directed by Chip Decker
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
January 8 - 25, 2014

Nothing captures an audience so much as when a performer comes out and leaves everything onstage. Such is the case with Billy Ensley who plays Hedwig. ATC left it to the people to vote and Hedwig and the Angry Inch won handily. It's no mystery as Mr. Ensley repeats his outstanding performance of Hedwig, belting out songs, strutting around the stage provocatively with garish glittery blue eye shadow, using different voices and accents, costumes & wigs, and displaying shifting emotions, often on a dime.

The story of the abandoned son of an Army man left behind The Wall in East Berlin with his mother, "Hansel" dreams of a better life. Another military man mistakes him for a girl but falls in love anyway. Yet to marry, Hansel must become a she. A botched sex change operation leaves her neither/nor with only an "angry inch" left to deal with. He morphs into Hedwig and moves to America, but is deserted again. Through her humiliation and pain Hedwig finds a way to go on. That's why we care. She's fascinating. She's a survivor.

The five-piece band, named the Angry Inch and led by Music Director Ryan Stamey on keyboards, featuring Matt Carlson and Jeremy DeCarlos on guitar (both delivering high-voltage guitar licks), Anthony Proctor on bass, and Greg Lisi on drums. The able ensemble kept the joint rocking and the audience engaged as they provided the suitable atmosphere of a punk rock club. Mr. Ensley belted out song after song between the story lines, ranging from the raucous "The Angry Inch" to the sublime "Hedwig's Lament", and capping it with the crowd pleasing "Midnight Radio".

The technical team gives the setting more juice this time around starting with sound by Chip Decker and sound mixer Kelly Traux. Also notable is the lighting by TC Kouyeas, costumes by Annie Laurie Wheat, props by Carrie Cranford, and makeup by Clay Smith. Slides and video were projected on several screens during the performance, including a creative accompaniment to "The Origin of Love".

Before the show, ATC, now in its 25th Anniversary season, was given an award by the North Carolina Theatre Conference for their outstanding contributions to live theatre. We congratulate them. Hedwig and the Angry Inch lives up to that standard in every way possible.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is co-founder and film/theatre review editor of ARTS à la Mode. Vive les arts.

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