The month of October kicked off the holiday season with panache. Halloween treats were staged throughout the month, and each brought its own scare to its audience.
Pippin Shines at Murfreesboro Little Theatre
It seldom occurs anymore that I am overwhelmed by any of the productions that I attend; it is my work as critic to turn a more discerning eye upon our local stages, and such a responsibility usually tempers my response any given show. This month’s offering at MLT, however, stands apart in my mind. It was without doubt the most remarkable musical that I have seen since I began writing this column. Under the expert direction of E. Roy Lee and Arabelle Pollick, Pippin was a joyous, triumphant presentation that exceeded any expectations.
The stage was simply dressed; black curtains and a few pieces of set dressing were sufficient. The black-box effect granted the actors a blank canvas upon which to paint their performances, and it allowed the audience the opportunity to focus completely upon their presentation. A work of historical fiction, Pippin tells the story of the son of Charlemagne; it wrestles with questions of virtue, strength and those values that deeply define a life well lived. Lee and Pollick accepted such a heavy burden skillfully, and their creative vision was simply invigorating.
Music was provided by MLT stalwart Charlie Parker, whose work is always most impressive, and the flawless choreography was crafted by Pollick herself, who drew some subtle inspiration from Bob Fosse, who choreographed the Broadway debut of Pippin in 1972. Their work was stunning; the cast was pitch-perfect, and their dancing was haunting and ethereal.
Leading the troupe of players who guided the production was Christopher Michael Maupins, a gifted performer who incarnated sexuality and libido. His attempted seduction of the titular Pippin, played by Shawn Cornelius, into the life dictated for him was compelling, and the actors’ conflicts were beautifully real. Pippin’s own struggles to fulfill the calling that only he heard were intimate and touching, and Cornelius gave a wonderfully candid performance that was at times heart-rending.
Questions of family permeate Pippin, and Lee and Pollick negotiated these relationships with the utmost skill. With remarkable vigor and resolution, Gary Davis portrayed Charlemagne, whose quest for power eclipses the needs of his son. The familial conflict between Davis and Cornelius was brutal and moving. Enhancing this conflict were the performances of Justin Holder and Cyndie Verbeten, playing the roles of Lewis, Pippin’s belligerent and less than intellectually gifted brother, and Fastrada, Pippin’s manipulative and conniving mother, respectively. Holder was fantastic, and Verbeten radiated. To counter these inveigling influences, Wayman Price deliciously portrayed Berthe, Pippin’s paternal grandmother who had been banished by Fastrada. His performance was lively, and it provided a welcome bit of levity to the production.
The supporting players were magnificent in their performances; their roles were not unlike that of a Greek chorus that provides impetus to the shows narrative. It was their energy and emotion that directly fueled the production and affected the audience. We were made to feel both relaxed and discomfited as the players’ collective attempted to entice Pippin away from his convictions.
Simply put, Pippin was a magnificent production. The music, choreography, and acting were all sublime and persuasive. The show’s denouement was passionate, moving, and unforgettable. I look forward to a seeing a show that will rival the emotional effect of Pippin, but I fear that I may be waiting for some time. My deepest thanks goes to the creators of this masterpiece for an evening of theater that I will never forget.
The Center Stalked by a Malevolent Immortal
Bram Stoker started it all with his 1897 novel Dracula. Stoker unknowingly unleashed a rampaging torrent of interest surrounding the occult and, in particular, vampires. He combined the age-old legend of the vampyre—the demon race that feasts on human blood—with the bloody history of Transylvanian prince Vlad the Impaler who murdered and tortured thousands during the 1400s.
Thus, it was with some trepidation that I attended the recent performance of Dracula at the Center for the Arts, even though it was helmed by the inimitable Bryan Sunday-Booth. Admittedly, there was some relief that the production wasn’t in lesser hands. Yet I still wasn’t sure if the production could stand on its own since it has surely reached a certain level of ubiquity.
Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised: the acting, for the most part, was fairly on target with plenty of depth and pathos. Murfreesboro familiars Todd Seage, as Professor Van Helsing, and Bill Stewart, as Dr. Thomas Seward, were a total joy as they studied their nemesis and planned his demise. This was so even though Stewart’s mastery of the British dialect was inconsistent at best. On the other hand, Seage’s Dutch dialect was sublime; it was neither intrusively over-the-top nor underdeveloped. Surprising character actor Aaron Hall, in the role of Reinfeld, was definitely in his element; he stole the show with his delivery of the evening’s most clever lines.
The title character Count Dracula was played by relish and gusto by John Mack Green, Though his Romanian dialect was a bit heavy at times, Green gave an admirable performance. Also enjoyable were Angela Gimlin and Michael Adcock as the romantic pair of Lucy Westphal and Jonathan Harker. Their chemistry was easy to believe, and the audience visibly reacted to their struggle to defend their love against Dracula’s onslaught.
While the acting was on par, the only quibble I really have with the show is its run time and the hesitant execution of some of the show’s special effects. If I were to give one suggestion, it would be to tighten up the set changes or eliminate them altogether and allow lighting to designate various locales. Oh, and more blood please.
Paranoia Proves Catching at Out Front on Main
To continue their stated mission of brining edgy, thought-provoking theatre to the Murfreesboro scene, Out Front staged the regional debut of Bug by Tracy Letts as their October offering. Helmed by George Manus, who undertook the daunting task of creating the show with two distinct casts, Bug invited the audience to join protagonists Agnes and Peter in their descent into madness and paranoia. It was an invitation that, given Manus’s on-point direction and the cast’s fearless performances, the audience simply couldn’t refuse.
Leading lady Molly Breen was fascinating as Agnes, a young divorcée who has taken up residence in a rural motel room. The sometimes claustrophobic stage provided by Out Front was brilliantly utilized to heighten the imposing sense of Agnes’s space. Invited into Agnes’s world was Peter, a Army veteran whose experiences in the Middle East left scars that continue to haunt him, played by Andy Woloszyn. The chemistry between Breen and Woloszyn was perhaps a bit hesitant at times, but ultimately it was believable as Agnes accepted Peter’s conspiracy-laden view of reality.
As foils to the oddly poignant relationship between Agnes and Peter, Goss, Agnes’s ex-husband, and R.C., her protective friend, provide some context for the play’s growing paranoia. Buddy Jones was truly refreshing as Goss; this role was very much a departure from his normal fare, and I was quite impressed with his demonstrated versatility as an abusive and belligerent addict. Tara McBay also delivered a solid performance as R.C., whose protective tendencies regarding Agnes were touching. Rounding out the cast was Hudson Wilkins in the role of Dr. Sweet, the psychiatrist who had treated Peter during the period leading to the opening of the play. Wilkins’s performance was both disturbing and effective; it was not difficult to see the appeal of Peter’s delusions in the light of Sweet’s subtly manipulative machinations.
It is worth noting that Out Front on Main continues to push the boundaries of local theater by refusing to shy away from performance elements like nudity. This is not to say that nudity is being used for shock value, but rather that Manus should be applauded for presenting scripts in their intended form, one not expurgated to fit more easily the mores of local audiences.
The attention to detail – both of characters and of the environment in which they find themselves—in Bug was most evident. From the characters’ nuanced explorations of fear and loss to the articulate set dressing, Manus deftly crafted a production that was perfect for this haunting time of year.
Consider This Brings a Medley of Chills
At the Swan Performing Arts Center this month was the Consider This, Inc., production entitled Tales of the Macabre. The production was a series of five short plays, three based on the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, one based on a popular short story, and one adaptation of a radio drama classing. Unlike the shows I have previously seen at the Swan, Tales of the Macabre was not presented in the round. Director Barry Hardy quite ingeniously reallocated the space and crafted a bold twist on theatrical expectations.
First in the lineup was The Raven, drawn from the Poe classic of the same name. The staging was simple. The audience watched the Man, played by Thomas Esson, experience the evening’s events as they were narrated by Matthew Forman with text drawn directly from the poem. Forman’s narration was at times chilling, and overall this scene was very effective in setting the mood. The presentation may have benefitted from slightly more lighting (and a slightly larger raven; I almost missed him), but it was a well-chosen opening for the production as a whole.
The Lottery, adapted from the well-known short story by Shirley Jackson, was the largest disappointment of the evening. This was not due to the performances; the actors performed admirably considering the script they were given. Rather, it was the script itself that was deeply flawed. The narrative was crafted in a completely different manner than the original story; it did not focus on Jackson’s original protagonist, but rather on the townspeople around her as a collective. The result was an almost inexplicable mess that—without forehand knowledge of the plot—would baffle an audience. It lacked the pathos and irony that define Jackson’s classic.
Returning to Poe, a reader’s theater style performance of The Tell Tale Heart was refreshing in its simple staging. Solo performer Luke Patton, in period costume, took the stage and read the story with verve. His passionate rendition, deeply expressive visage, and robust baritone were a perfect combination for this story. I was very impressed that this scene was so viscerally affecting given its utter simplicity of staging.
Sorry, Wrong Number, an adaptation of the classic radio drama, provided one of the more intriguing experiences of the production. As the story unfolded, the audience sat in near total darkness. The resultant ostranenie heightened the audience’s sensitivity to the protagonist’s plight. Vanessa Maleare delivered a solid performance as the terrified woman home alone when she overhears the plan for her own murder.Though unexpected, Sorry, Wrong Number was quite enjoyable.
Poe’s Masque of the Red Death brought the evening to a chilling close. The story was read as a luminescent cast danced the tale under black lights. Unfortunately, the choreography was muddled, and the result was a less effective presentation that left the audience uncertain regarding which should have more focus, the glowing cast or narrator Tom Petty.
Overall, Tales of the Macabre was a successful experiment. Hardy demonstrated that the viable formats for local theatre extend beyond the expected. I am looking forward to the next experiment from Consider This.
Upcoming performances, Nov. 2011
7:30 p.m. Nov. 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12, 17, 18
and 19; 2 p.m. Nov. 6, 13 and 20
The Center for the Arts
110 W. College St.
7 p.m., Nov. 11, 12, 18 and 19; 2 p.m. Nov.
13 and 20
Murfreesboro Little Theater
702 Ewing Ave.
Out Front on Main Presents . . . Comedy
8 p.m. Nov. 26–27
Out Front on Main
1511 E. Main St. (615) 713-1757
Shows all month, check
outfrontonmain.com for full lineups
Ashley Brooke Corby, Nov. 3–5
Bryce Damuth, Nov. 10–12
Battle of the Sexes,
Guys vs. Girls, Nov. 17–19