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"Heck the Dolls With Chardonnay," November 18-20, December 9-11, Chapin Theatre Company, 240-8544.

"A Christmas Carol, the Musical," December 1-18, Town Theatre, 799-2510.

"A Christmas Story," December 1-11, Sumter Little Theatre, 775-2150.

"'Twas the Night...," December 2-10, On Stage Productions, 351-6751.

"The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical," December 2-17, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

"Cinderella," December 3-11, Columbia Children's Theatre, 691-4548.

"You Can't Take it With You," January 20 - February 5, Town Theatre, 799-2510.

" Boy," January 13-21, Trustus Side Door Theatre, 254-9732.

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Original Play “Heck the Dolls With Chardonnay” Celebrates Gal Pals and Holiday Misadventures

Review by August Krickel 

If you find yourself at a play being staged in American Legion Post 193 - formerly the old fire station in downtown Chapin, SC, population 1,445 - you probably didn't arrive there by accident. Factor in the title of your intended entertainment for the evening, Heck the Dolls with Chardonnay, and it's a safe bet that you weren't looking for the Royal Shakespeare Company.  The full-length playwriting debut for Lou Clyde - who portrays feisty retirement home resident Sue - as well as the directorial debut of longtime Chapin actor, producer, and board president Jim DeFelice, Heck the Dolls is exactly the silly, heart-warming comic ode to the holidays that its title implies. I don't know that's it's destined to hit Broadway any time soon, but this charming little collection of vignettes from the lives of Southern women is just the sort of light entertainment that regular Chapin Theatre Company (CCT) patrons routinely enjoy.  In an interesting scheduling move, the production premiered this past weekend, but then will take a break for Thanksgiving, returning on Thursday Dec. 8 for four final performances, closing with a 3 PM matinee on Sunday, Dec. 11.

The play's framing device is a Thanksgiving visit to Sue by her granddaughter Emma (Emma Bagley); Sue reminisces about holiday misadventures long ago with her BFF Becky (Jessica Fichter) which then play out in extended flashback scenes. Younger Sue is played by Tiffany Dinsmore, who created these characters with Clyde two years ago in CCT's 'Tis the Season, and Clyde has now expanded the duo's exploits into a full-length script. Like less dysfunctional American versions of Edina and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous, suburban wives/moms Sue and Becky survive the stress of family obligations, tiresome holiday traditions, and the approach of middle age via mutual support, sarcasm, and liberal doses of wine. Although the Ab Fab personas are reversed: Sue is the tall, hot blonde, but the more grounded of the two, while petite brunette Becky is the more acerbic and outrageous.  In successive scenes the gal pals share New Year's resolutions, decorate cookies for the book club, and mock their friends' saccharine Christmas greetings, but when the going gets tough, they are there for each other.  The two funniest scenes are the naughtiest, involving camping outside a store in anticipation of Black Friday, and Becky's initiation to cooking a turkey, in which she mistakes the enclosed neck for ... well, for exactly what it looks like. These moments are probably no worse than PG-13, but be aware if you're planning on taking your grandmother. Most of the play's humor is character-centric, and stems from situations with which the audience may easily identify, following in the vein of humor columnists like Erma Bombeck. Dinsmore and Fichter have a natural rapport, and their back-and-forth repartee moves quickly and naturally. They're both experienced performers, but I give director DeFelice credit as well.

The stage in what CTC now calls the Firehouse Theatre is tiny, making the construction of realistic sets impractical, and precluding any significant blocking. Instead, DeFelice does what he has to, placing older Sue and Emma in chairs on stage right, while younger Sue and Becky are seated at stage left in higher chairs at a kitchen island, i.e. a free-standing counter area, where they can chat and drink freely. Accordingly, most of the dialogue is spoken by stationary actors, but one doesn't mind, thanks to the generally fast pace. The stage is otherwise bare, with only lighting defining separate locations. One drawback, however, is that Clyde and Bagley's chairs are fairly low and close to the stage floor, causing some of their lines to be lost beyond the first row of the audience, but greater projection in week two of the run will be a simple and easy fix. One broadly comic scene touches on an otherwise serious subject, Sue's first mammogram, and the show's necessary minimalism allows for a deliciously surreal metaphor, as med tech Sandy Steffen employs an old-fashioned folding ironing board and an even older-fashioned flat iron to represent the unpleasant physicality of the experience.

Since this is literally a world premiere of an original work, it's appropriate to critique the material as well, since new plays often undergo many revisions. Overall, this is a sweet story that captures the importance of friendship - even if it's usually fueled by alcohol - in the lives of these two women, and by transference, women in general.  Any time the story shifts away from them, action and interest wane. And while the framing device provides nice bookends for each successive episode, and while the scenes of the grandmother and her granddaughter are touching, I would have liked to have seen some stronger connection made between past and present, and perhaps some greater lesson learned by Emma from these tales. George Dinsmore turns up in one scene as his wife Tiffany's stage husband, and while it's always a treat to see him perform, this particular anecdote seems a little out of place. Ideally, I'd like to see that scene dropped (or saved for some future play about couples) and a one or two new scenes inserted, perhaps dealing more directly with the catastrophes that can happen during holiday celebrations. That said, there's a final twist that I probably should have seen coming a mile away, but it was a pleasant surprise for me, and certainly the piece's most definitive "Awwwwww" moment.

At the matinee I attended, the audience was at least 90% female, almost all baby boomers or older.  There’s no question in my mind that Heck the Dolls with Chardonnay fulfilled 100% of their expectations, providing a pleasant 90 minutes of diversion and laughter with a local flavor.  The show returns for four more performances only, Dec. 8-11. For information, visit http://chapintheatre.org/2016/heck-the-dolls.html.

Cosi at Longstreet Theatre Finds Laughter and Poignancy Within Madness

Review by August Krickel

Louis Nowra's Cosi, running through Saturday, Nov. 19 at USC's Longstreet Theatre, takes its name from the Italian title of Mozart's opera Cosė Fan Tutte, meaning "So do they all." The final "E" in "Tutte," however, signifies a feminine subject, and the usual translation is "Women are like that." Tracing the obstacles and tribulations encountered by a young director as he attempts to stage a production of said opera with a cast of patients at a mental institution, Cosi offers plenty of laughs, moments of poignancy and tenderness, and  most importantly, diverse acting opportunities for a fresh new crop of departmental MFA students making their Columbia stage debut.

A semi-autobiographical memory from the playwright's youth, Cosi follows the misadventures of "Lewis," played with subtlety and nuance by Donavan St. Andre, a recent college drama graduate who takes the first job he can find in late 60's Australia, over the objections of his live-in lover Lucy (Kimberly Gaughan) and best friend Nick (Nicolas Stewart.)  Not least among their objections:  the opera’s title and 180-year-old libretto celebrate an antiquated view of women as frivolous flirts.   Stewart and Gaughan also double as inmates, with the latter especially successful at creating two distinct characters with only simple changes of hair worn up or down, and radically dissimilar body language. As one might expect, the patients are a motley lot; some are nearly catatonic from over-medication or just by nature, and others are scarcely able to control emotional outbursts and destructive impulses. Meanwhile, Lucy and Nick pressure Lewis to join their movement of artists protesting Australia's involvement in Viet Nam, yet Lewis begins to find his own form of therapy in his interactions with the "mad" performers of the play within the play; to him, Mozart’s characters seem to be advocating independence for women, yet endorsing the traditional, committed relationship he is unable to find with Lucy.

Matthew Cavender takes top acting honors as Roy, a histrionic control-freak whose obsession with the Mozart opera sets the play's plot into motion. On opening night, Stewart got plenty of laughs as the aggressively sexual pyromaniac Doug, while Kaleb Edward Edley generated sympathy for his older, soft-spoken character Henry, who plays with toy soldiers as a tribute to his war hero father. Kimberly Braun was a veritable dynamo of emotion as manic Cherry, while Libby Hawkins created perhaps the most tragic figure as suicidal Ruth, whose obsessive-compulsive mannerisms give her tiny opportunities for control in a life that otherwise has spun out of control. The cast's sole undergraduate, Brooke Smith, expertly captured the officiousness of the institution's social worker. St. Andre's calm and placid demeanor anchored the tumult on stage, yet an argument scene between Lewis and Lucy, and an expertly-timed punch to Nick, were both gripping and believable.   Realistic depictions of mental health issues notwithstanding, Nowra's script overflows with dark comedy, with Ruth's deadpan rendition of the song "I'm So Excited" - delivered without a speck of excitement - a highlight.

Baxter Engle's set, depicting a run-down rehearsal space and its tiny stage, was necessarily minimalist, yet completely credible, as was the suggestion of a fire escape landing outside Lewis's apartment, creatively placed in the middle of the audience.  Director Steven Pearson has elicited natural yet detailed characterizations from his actors, and timing is excellent across the board. The audience surrounds the actors on three sides, meaning that at any given moment one or more actors' backs will be turned to a particular section; this led to some actors struggling to be heard, while others, especially Smith, Cavender, St. Andre, and Hawkins, projected with vigor and clarity throughout.  As one enters the space, the natural inclination will be to sit in the center section, facing the faux stage; however, I’d recommend moving to either the left or preferably the right sections of seats, for maximum visibility and audibility.

My guess is that inherent challenges for the actors - including mastery of accents, and the recreation of the mannerisms of various psychoses - and the opportunity for good ensemble work made Cosi an attractive choice for the Theatre Department's new class of MFA students moreso than any great literary merit in the material.   The closing image seen by the audience is a quote from the opera's final lines: "Make him laugh, and despite the tempest of his life, he will find serenity and peace." While in no way a deep philosophical work nor even a particularly profound piece of dramatic literature, Cosi makes a clear statement about the meaning one can find within fiction, and the healing power of art and performance.  Cosi returns Wednesday, November 16 and runs through Saturday, Nov. 19 (with both matinee and evening performances on Saturday) at USC's Longstreet Theatre. For information, call 803-777-9353 or visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/cosi-longstreet-theatre.







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