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Walking On Water Productions

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WOW Productions' Secrets in Plain Sight Is a Sexy Telenovela Performed Live on Stage

Review by August Krickel

Secrets in Plain Sight is a sort of telenovela done live, set in urban Columbia and aimed at an urban Columbia audience. Replete with deception, romantic conflict, and dangerous liaisons, the original script by Tangie Beaty, Donna Johnson, and LeTasha Robinson may not be headed for Broadway any time soon, but certainly charmed an appreciative matinee audience at the WOW Performing Arts Center last Sunday.

If you're not familiar with WOW - short for "Walking On Water" - Productions, the theater group maintains a 60-seat black box-style venue at 5816-A Shakespeare Road, just off Two Notch. Their mission is threefold: to provide acting opportunities for local performers at all levels of experience, including plentiful roles for actors of color; to showcase original works by authors including co-founders Beaty and Johnson; and to present productions that often include an uplifting or inspirational theme.  Much like the last WOW show I attended, Love Lies, the inspiration here consisted primarily of occasional references to trusting in God, which were never overly preachy or intrusive, and indeed were completely appropriate for the nature of the characters depicted.  

Action centers around a stylish hair salon owned by seemingly sweet Michelle (Dana Bufford) and her slick, would-be-player husband Demetrius (Darian Hill.) Looking to make a new start, winsome Sonya (Mani Millss) joins the staff, which includes single dad Leon (Glenn Duane Johnson) and sassy receptionist Tasha.  Arischa Conner Frierson, who finished a run in Sex on Sunday at Trustus approximately 18 hours earlier, stepped in to play Tasha at the last minute for the matinee I attended, and captured the character's uninhibited flirtatiousness and ebullience with ease, generating some of the show's biggest laughs. While the script has few actual jokes, the interaction of disparate personality types led to humor throughout. Added to the mix are customers Diane (Rhonda Adams), her husband Richard (Deon Turner), and sensitive detective Troy (Bucky Kennedy.) Like any good soap opera, most of the characters have a complicated past with each other that impels the play's narrative, which delves into fairly dark themes including domestic violence and a cold case murder from 11 years earlier.

While the WOW space is cozy, with action unfolding only a few feet away from the audience, head and body microphones were employed by the cast, and this often led to the actors neglecting to project. All the performers were earnest, sincere, and completely believable in their portrayals thanks to William Young IV's direction, but often delivered their lines as if they were being filmed in tight close-up shots, essentially forgetting to play to the live audience, which led to some lines being muffled and bits of exposition obscured. Bufford, Frierson, and Mills usually managed to overcome that challenge, displaying capable and savvy stage presence, while the clarity and intensity of Johnson's delivery grew as the show progressed, leading to a gripping emotional outburst in the second act that inspired a spontaneous round of applause as his scene ended.

Sadly, to me the play's denouement felt both rushed and contrived - although entirely in keeping with tropes found in serial dramas on television, right down to a cliffhanger, and the promise of an upcoming sequel. Yet thunderous applause ensued, and there's no question in my mind that everyone present had a pleasant experience. I feel much of this is due to the authors' ear for realistic dialogue, and the relaxed ease and naturalism of the cast, who play readily relatable types.  Without revealing any plot spoilers, I’ll note that I might have wished for a stronger statement of support for victims of domestic violence; within the sexy and sensationalistic storyline could have been a much darker and more serious examination of abusive relationships and why people feel compelled to make bad choices - although that would require an extensive rewrite, necessarily losing most of the comedy, as well as much of Leon's backstory.  Still, I'm confident that the directors and author accomplished the specific goals they set out to achieve.

Cass Elliot once sang "make your own kind of music – sing your own special song.” WOW Productions is a terrific example of theater artists taking their destiny in their own hands, and I have no doubt that audiences will pack the house for the next installment of sex, lies, and secrets at the salon. Secrets in Plain Sight returns for three more performances this weekend; visit http://www.wowproduction.org/secretsinplainsight for ticket information. 



Sex on Sunday at Trustus: Can a Dominatrix With a Heart of Gold Find Love and Happiness?

Review by August Krickel

Can a sweet, curvy, young professional woman find success, love and happiness in the big city?  Sex on Sunday, running through this weekend in Trustus Theatre's intimate Side Door space, seeks to answer that question, adding a kinky twist: protagonist Leila (Devin Anderson) is a professional dominatrix, her heart of gold contrasting with her wardrobe of studded leather.

At 80 minutes, and presented without intermission, Chisa Hutchison's script doesn't try to solve world problems or make any definitive societal statements, but instead touches on aspects of modern romance. The implicit trust between Laila and her submissive clients (Josh Kern and Jon Whit McClinton) is a metaphor for the trust required for all relationships, while their need for domination suggests a subconscious desire to relinquish their roles as alpha males in the realms of business as well as love. And while there's a clear endorsement of traditional love and commitment, the author, speaking through the sensible Stacey - a Vassar grad like Hutchison, and played with sincerity by Felicia Myers - hints that experimentation in the bedroom never hurts.

Director Eric Bultman has elicited extreme naturalism from his actors, crucial for the close quarters of the 50-seat Side Door venue. And while Anderson alternately teases, torments and denigrates her willing "subs," her best moments on opening night came from troubled expressions that silently revealed her character's emotional turmoil. Kern gave a three-dimensional performance as Kessler, a customer who wants more than just a business transaction, while Myers, Arischa Frierson, and Mahogany Collins rounded out the cast as Leila's bantering gal pals who conclude that Leila is some kind of "power broker" - which of course she is. Frierson's character is intended to be over the top and unlikable, but at times I felt that the actress's performance was too broad for the tiny performance space; still, she got some huge laughs, and her final ten seconds on stage created perhaps the play's most rewarding moment.

Curtis Smoak's set design makes optimal use of the available space, and includes a full-scale, working wooden torture wheel on which Kern is spun around. I especially enjoyed tiny ways in which scene changes were accomplished, including a revolving panel that defined different locations via wall decorations, and a sofa and coffee table which quickly converted into a bed.

The script establishes all of the characters save for Kessler as African-American, and while there are a couple of references to shared cultural experiences, and a brief discussion among the ladies about interracial dating, the story is about relationships, not race. Nevertheless, it's always nice to see opportunities for actors of color to shine in multi-faceted roles. The R-rated subject matter notwithstanding, Hutchison's story plays out as a fairly straightforward romantic comedy, with the charisma and magnetism of the leads responsible for as much or more of its appeal as any dramatic or thematic depth. In short, it's a nice destination for date-night that allows plenty of time for dinner and drinks before or after.














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