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Pulitzer-Winning The Flick Finds Larger Meaning In Details of Meaningless Lives

Review by August Krickel

Any resemblance between The Flick, the run-down indie movie theater that lends its name to the play now running at Trustus Theatre, and The Nick, Columbia's own indie art-house cinema, is entirely coincidental. If anything, The Flick is closer to the last years of Main Street's old Fox Theater - the location where The Nick now thrives - back when it featured action films at discount prices following their initial runs at fancier multiplexes.  However, any resemblance between the lives of the three protagonists of Annie Baker's Pulitzer Prize-winning seriocomedy and our own is subtle, uncomfortable, thought-provoking, and almost certainly intentional.  Defiantly refusing to provide any answers to the challenges of modern existence, or even to offer any overt insights, The Flick takes its own sweet time in endearing itself to the audience, but if you have the patience to take it all in, you will not regret the experience.

Baker's script is deceptively simple. We follow the daily existence of three low-level employees at a second-run movie theater in Worcester, MA. Sam (Ben Blazer) and Avery (Kendrick Marion) sweep, mop, and clean, while Rose (Christine Hellman) periodically pops in to banter with them when she's not busy in the projection booth. Avery is the new kid, a sensitive young film buff taking time off from college while coping with family and emotional issues. Sam seems smart enough, enjoys movies as popular entertainment, but at 35 is still working an $8.25/hour job. He's the kind of guy who wears a backwards Red Sox hat indoors without being a big sports fan, and seems to take pride in being "de facto in charge on Saturday" when the boss is gone. Rose is a perky mess, sporting grunge attire, tattoos, and hair haphazardly streaked with green; she drifts through relationships aimlessly, describing herself as a nymphomaniac in the first few weeks, but then swiftly losing interest. The three interact as one would expect, occasionally coming into conflict, randomly revealing their thoughts and experiences in casual conversation, and expressing general dissatisfaction with their lives, and with life in general. And that's it. For three hours, including intermission. Yet the action (or lack thereof) never grows tedious, thanks to Dewey Scott-Wiley's sure hand at the directorial helm, and my affinity for each character continued to grow from start to finish.

Significant themes are addressed by the author, but they are expertly camouflaged by ultra-realistic and seemingly trivial dialogue. The economy, for example.  The 2012 setting implies an America not quite yet out of the recession; Rose, at 24, must only recently have graduated from college, and refers to crippling student loan debts, which she will never be able to repay. Over the course of the summer depicted on stage, we see the independent theater sold to a chain, staff downsized, and quality compromised.  Yet there's no formal discussion of any greater political/economic climate, just random references in passing as the characters focus on what their weekend plans may be. In short, we the audience must provide the rest, relating the experiences depicted on stage to our own narrative, and drawing our own conclusions from fairly intelligent young people working dead-end jobs. Like Sisyphus, the Greek king condemned for eternity to repeatedly push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down, Sam and Avery perform the same laborious tasks after each showing, only to do the same thing in the next scene, and the next. (My guess is that the cast and stage manager quickly dirty the set with strewn popcorn and empty containers during successive blackouts, and the effect is quite convincing.)

Christine Hellman is a delight as the gamine-like Rose, who invariably enters with a spring in her step, and a knowing smirk on her lips. In an indie movie, she would be the archetypal "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," an irrepressible sprite who inspires one or both of her glum co-workers to new heights of career achievement and personal growth. In fact, Avery even opens that door, confessing that while people tell him that he should just be himself, he doesn't know who that is supposed to be. The playwright, however, gives no easy answer, and Rose has no profound advice. As Avery, Kendrick Marion takes a 180-degree turn from more flamboyant, singing characters he has portrayed, like Jimmy "Thunder" Early in last summer's Dreamgirls. Avery raises the plays' biggest question:  are we as a society genuine, or just assuming personas, acting out the roles we find ourselves cast in?  In a real sense, Rose and Sam have taken on the role of petty embezzlers, reselling a few tickets at each show, and pocketing what they nonchalantly call "dinner money," They explain to the reluctant Avery that everyone does it, and former employees were the ones who introduced them to a tradition at The Flick.  In other words, they took on these roles without question.

At the metaphorical level, the theater is preparing to switch from an actual projector of 35-mm film to a digital system, and Avery protests, asserting that digital is generic, and loses the verisimilitude of what was originally photographed.  Yet he too has taken on a role, that of the film snob, just as Sam takes on the role of the fan of pop films for sheer entertainment value, and Rose has become the dysfunctional hipster. When Rose comes on to Avery, there's no sense of actual romantic attraction.  Rather, in her world, that's what people do when they're alone - they hook up, get high, and later break up. Avery wonders if it's his destiny to be the sensitive depressed kid, yet we're not sure if he realizes that too is a stock role.  Is he into film, and/or academia due to intellectual curiosity?  Or is it just because his father is a professor, or that movies can be an escape from his life?   Later in the play, Sam confesses his attraction to Rose, and she legitimately calls him on it, suggesting that this has nothing to do with her, and that's he's just acting out a part, after sensing that she's attracted to Avery. 24 hours later, I realized that she's probably just echoing Avery's rejection of the notion of artificial personas.  Ben Blazer as Sam has the toughest job, making an unimpressive, ordinary, nobody seem sympathetic; the actor's vitality and energy, often suppressed but still visible, accomplishes the task. Had this story been a film from a decade earlier, I can imagine Matt Damon as Sam, with Zooey Deschanel as Rose, and perhaps the late Lee Thompson Young as Avery. 

Other writers have used the term "theater of the mundane" to describe contemporary, ultra-realistic plays that deal with modern social issues in a naturalistic way. I'm going to call it poetry of the ordinary, told in the simple vernacular of young millennials who speak in words of one and two syllables, often prefaced with "it's like, you know...."  I noted that around the 2-hour mark, early into the second act, the script becomes profound, creeping into Harold Pinter territory with poignancy. (Although Pinter's work might seem like fast-paced, madcap, screwball comedies compared to Annie Baker.)  All credit goes to director Dewey Scott-Wiley, who enables her actors to find the meaning in long stretches of silence, and make them purposeful. She also creates strong visual statements via blocking, with Sam always cleaning stage right, Avery stage left, and Rose sometimes forming the top of a triangle as we see her above in the projection booth.  She incorporates a hugely significant touch, seemingly just a nuance, when Sam trains a new employee (Colin Milligan) who is half his age, but twice as fast and proficient at sweeping.  Chet Longley's scenic design is an important component too, accurately replicating the look of a slightly decaying movie theater's interior.

Last year, I wrote this about Bakari Lebby's production of Lydia Diamond's play Stick Fly at Workshop Theatre:  "I suspect that Diamond faces the same challenges as (playwright) Neil LaBute: when you try to depict modern life as realistically as possible on stage, without the flowery and eloquent monologues of a Blanche Dubois or a Maggie the Cat, you risk seeming trivial. Yet she unquestionably is tackling bigger issues, while never becoming didactic or tiresomely preachy."  The same is true of The Flick.  These characters are treading water in their lives, without even a Godot to wait for.  How does this apply to the generation coming of age in America today?  The author won't say, but the ingredients are all there, with the audience left to find the message on our own.  Some may find that frustrating, while others may be daunted by the show's length, and talkiness alternating with long minutes where not a word is said. But the play won a Pulitzer for a reason, and I feel that the questions raised are well worth consideration.  The Flick runs through June 4 at Trustus Theatre; for information, visit http://www.trustus.org or call 803-254-9732 .


Five Actors Travel  
Around the World in 80 Days Via Storytelling and Imagination at 701 Whaley

Review by August Krickel.

Workshop Theatre closes its 2016 spring season with a bang, as five actors combine performance with storytelling, engaging the audience's imagination as a necessary sixth participant in an epic adventure that takes us Around the World in 80 Days. The stage is as bare and the set dressing as sparse as the settings are exotic and the performances florid, but that's all part of the fun.

Based on Jules Verne's 1873 novel, Mark Brown's stage adaptation follows the original plot closely. Phileas Fogg (Chip Collins) is a stoic, intrepid, and punctilious gentleman who wagers 20,000 (over a million and a half today) that he can circumnavigate the globe in just eighty days, aided by newly completed railway lines in Asia and America, and the supremacy of British steamships on the sea.  Potential prize money notwithstanding, the journey will require significant expenditure, and Scotland Yard Detective Fix (Ripley Thames) suspects Fogg's desire to skip the country with much cash in hand may be tied to a recent Bank of England robbery by a so-called "gentleman bandit." Fogg, accompanied by manservant Passepartout (Jeff Sigley) sets out with Fix in pursuit, but when Fogg's progress is faster than the arrival of British warrants  for his arrest, Fix is forced to shadow him each step of the way, looking for some means to slow his progress.

As Fogg, Collins is the very model of the unflappable Victorian hero. At first as enigmatic and aloof as first season Capt. Picard, Collins gradually allows us to see Fogg's compassionate side, as first he defies Brahmin religious custom to rescue an Indian princess (Ellen Rodillo-Fowler) from perishing on her late husband's funeral pyre, and later as he risks irreparable damage to his intricately-timed itinerary in order to rescue Passepartout from Native American captors. A nice character touch from Collins (and director Frank Thompson) is the way that no matter how turbulent the weather or mode of conveyance may be, Fogg is always motionless and unaffected.

Jeff Sigley is familiar to theatre-goers in the suburbs on the other side of the river, but Passepartout is his first major role in downtown Columbia. He employs a nicely consistent French accent, depicting the servant not as a clown or comic bumbler, but as a loyal rascal with a bit of a shady past, determined to live up to his employer's high expectations. As fix, Thames is a worthy successor to blustery Robert Newton, who memorably played Fix in the famous 1956 David Niven film.  Rodillo-Fowler, like Shirley MacLaine, who portrayed Princess Aouda, is proficient at both comedy and drama (as well as singing and dancing, although she doesn't get to do either here.) I've enjoyed her as everything from a histrionic drama teacher in High School Musical and a brassy, bisexual New Yorker in Third Finger, Left Hand, to a compassionate Native American housekeeper in August: Osage County and a repressed Louisiana hairdresser just a couple of months ago in Steel Magnolias. There is seemingly no role she can't do, and accordingly she dives into her multiple roles here. As Aouda, she plays the part completely straight, as if in a deadly-serious adventure story, her eyes widening in terror and her voice trembling with each new peril. In assorted other roles, mainly boisterous, working-class Englishmen - and yes, that's Englishmen - she throws restraint to the wind and gets plenty of laughs. Indeed, much of this work's charm is that all cast members save for Fogg double, triple, and quadruple in other roles, populating the world across which Fogg journeys. Most switches of character are accomplished simply, via a different hat or jacket, and a particular accent or tone of voice.  The champ is William Arvay, who embodies at least 16 different roles, most of which are the many train engineers, ship's captains, and local officials whom Fogg encounters along the way. Arvay was a prolific leading man on Columbia stages in the '80's and '90's, often playing dapper gentlemen similar to Fogg, such as King Arthur and Daddy Warbucks. Here the veteran actor gets to go wild, channeling character voices that recall John Wayne, Andy Devine, Peter Lorre, Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade, and possibly even a sort of befuddled, tipsy, English variation on Sylvester the Cat. After a while, the opening night audience began laughing every time he came onto stage, in anticipation of what he might do next.

Much like the slapstick stage version of The 39 Steps (in which director Thompson similarly played dozens of eccentric characters), the comedy in Brown's script avoids punchlines and wisecracks, instead allowing humor to flow from exaggerated and melodramatic interpretations of otherwise straightforward dialogue and narration.  For example, what could have been a very dry account of how Fogg makes up for lost time in his journey becomes a verbal battle of one-upsmanship, as two actors refer to competing passages that details how connections are missed and then compensated for.  The action takes place on a virtually bare stage, enhanced only by occasional chairs and tables that sub for compartments on trains and boats, and the interiors of clubs, embassies, and even an opium den. With audience disbelief already suspended, the cast is able to play with conventions, making winking nods to how a simple change of a sign indicates a new country, or to how characters on one ship can talk to another character on another ship (i.e. the other side of the stage) telling him he should be in the scene with them.  The story's two major action sequences - the rescue of Aouda, and an attack by Apaches - play out just like Shakespeare, with characters describing what happens off stage. With constantly changing roles, the cast's commitment to verisimilitude is admirable; even in the tiniest of details: at one point, Passepartout pronounces "Illinois" with a "wah" sound at the end, just as a Frenchman would. At times, however, the ridiculousness transpiring is almost too much for the actors, and Thames, Arvay and Sigley have some terrific Harvey Korman-Tim Conway moments of suppressed snickering, much to the delight of the audience.

That playful tone allowed for a timely ad-lib on opening night that got one of the show's biggest laughs, when a lighting cue went wrong. Because of the barren backdrop, and the occasionally talky tone of Verne's Victorian prose, I encourage the cast to do more of it, as that's where the show's appeal lies. For whatever reason, lighting design by Barry Sparks was out of whack on opening night, with some areas poorly lit, and spotlights landing far from their intended targets. That's the sort of thing that is almost always remedied during the first couple of performances, however, and I suspect that when you see the show this week, you'll wonder what on earth I was referring to. While the stage itself is bare, set designer Jimmy Wall has created a false proscenium to help with the period feel, and that's quite an accomplishment given that it was all pulled together in a few days in a former warehouse space of four walls and a floor. Alexis Doktor's costumes, especially for Fogg and his posh London peers, are elegant and richly detailed. Thompson as an actor is a master of comic, mock-heroic delivery, and he has steered his cast in the right direction, although there could be even more, much much more. About 20 minutes of the 2.5+ hour run time could be trimmed with faster timing, and the men could all stand to project a lot more. I also think a lot more music could have been incorporated, as well as perhaps some projected scenery.  On the other hand, the design concept for this production is that almost everything is created by the actors on stage - including numerous train-whistles recreated via a simple hand-held prop - and that's pretty cool in and of itself.

Jules Verne led us on a Journey to the Center of the Earth, then sent us 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and aloft for Five Weeks in a Balloon. The question is: will Columbia theatre-goers accustomed to seeing productions at Workshop's former location on Bull Street be willing to trek a whopping two miles away to see a great production at 701 Whaley, the same place where they regularly attend weddings, conferences, and art exhibitions?  I certainly hope the answer is yes, because the space is inviting, the parking convenient, and the chairs far more comfortable in my experience than the confines of traditional theatre seats.  Workshop Theatre is doing good work at 701, and you owe it to yourself to come check it out.  Around the World in 80 Days continues through Sunday, May 22; call (803) 799-6551 or visit http://www.workshoptheatre.com/around-the-world-in-80-days.html  for more information.

The Addams Family Celebrates Family Values With a Creepy, Kooky, Mysterious, Spooky Twist

Review by August Krickel.

They're creepy and they're kooky, mysterious and spooky, they're all together ooky... and chances are that by now you're snapping your fingers in anticipation of the rest of the theme song from The Addams Family, the campy sitcom that ran for two years on ABC in the 60's. Based on several decades of dark one-panel New Yorker cartoons by Charles Addams, the show thrived in reruns, spawned a couple of films in the early '90's, and more recently a hit musical featuring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth that ran for 722 performances on Broadway. Town Theatre's final show of its 97th season is a faithful and lively recreation of the New York production, scaled down a bit for a community theatre stage and budget, but retaining the eccentric charm and (believe it or not) wholesomeness of the original.

Surprisingly, the story isn't based on the popular Raul Julia-Anjelica Huston movie or its sequel, but instead is a new - if somewhat derivative - chapter in the titular clan's adventures, as if the tv series had lasted for years like Family Ties or The Waltons. Here, Wednesday, the ghoul-next-door daughter embodied so memorably by Christina Ricci in the films, is 18-ish, and old enough to be interested in boys. Even if, true to form, the one who catches her eye is the one who says he would die for her. And no, sadly, it's not Joel, the adorable little nerd from summer camp in the second film, but rather a clean-cut, all-American boy in khakis and a blue blazer. If you've ever seen Samantha try to make Endora and Uncle Arthur seem normal when Darren's boss visits on Bewitched, or the Clampetts try to impress one of Elly May's suitors on The Beverly Hillbillies, or most accurately, the Munsters try to go mainstream when niece Marilyn brings home a boy, then you have a fairly good idea of the next two and a half hours on stage. Indeed, if you took My Big Fat Greek Wedding and substituted assorted eerie jokes and design concepts for Greek ones, then added music, lyrics and choreography, you'd pretty much have this show.  Which doesn't mean it's not cute, lively, and entertaining. But ultimately this is an extended sitcom concept, with the daughter in the throes of young love, the parents at odds over what to do, and little brother Pugsley feeling left out. Thus, there are no spoilers when I reveal that daddy Gomez dispenses fatherly wisdom worthy of Mike Brady or Ward Cleaver, leading to a happy resolution, and an inclusive message of love, acceptance, and individuality.

As Gomez, Clayton King channels Raul Julia's Latin vibe, more paternal and loving than John Astin's idiosyncratic wisecracker in the series, yet still sporting the familiar pinstripe suit and pencil-thin mustache. King, solid but understated in director Jamie Carr Harrington's Into the Woods a year ago, embraces the character's flamboyance with zest, but is the voice of reason within the show. Sheldon Paschal is a strikingly beautiful and imposingly glamorous Morticia - in a tie-you-down-and-swallow-your-soul sort of way - murmuring most of her lines, which are nevertheless completely audible thanks to David Quay's sound design. Danny Niati as Uncle Fester isn't directly involved in the main plotline of the star-crossed lovers, instead sneaking onto stage periodically for lively production numbers in which he basically gets to mess with the audience. Niati's Fester is both manic and impish, a chaotic hybrid of the stream-of-consciousness humor of Robin Williams, the wisecracks of Chris Rock, and the baroque showmanship of Al Jolson. Looking absolutely nothing like his brother Gomez actually fits in with the subversive nature of the show's humor. I do wish that Niati's slender dancer's body had been padded a bit more than with just a pot belly,  but on the other hand, that might have hindered his gleeful cavorting around the stage. Nancy Ann Smith has one really good scene as the cantankerous Grandma, and her character is the center of several excellent running gags, including just whose mother she may be, and just what sort of herbs she may use for her potions. Blakelee Cannon captures the dual nature of Wednesday perfectly: she's still morbid and quirky, but also eager to make a good impression on her boyfriend Lucas (Nate Stern.) Their voices blend together quite harmoniously in their numbers. I'm told that some years ago Cannon alternated in the title role of Annie with Ashlyn Combs, and the two share this role as well. Combs stole the show as few weeks ago in Seussical at Columbia Children's Theatre, and I'm sure that whichever young actress plays Wednesday on the night you attend, you will be in for a vocal treat. JJ Woodall and Heather Moorefield-Lang play Stern's hapless parents, salt-of-the-earth Mid-westerners who initially think the oddities at the Addams mansion are simply manifestations of a sophisticated New York lifestyle. They too embody these character parts perfectly, yet have rich and appealing singing voices.  A wonderful surprise is the professional caliber performance of young James Rabon as Pugsley (here Wednesday's younger brother, unlike the tv series.) His role is essential to the plot resolution, and his comic timing, along with his singing skill, are on par with his much older castmates. Lucas Bender makes the most of a few moments as Lurch, although the cadaverous butler, along with Thing and Cousin It, only make brief appearances.

Director Harrington has opted for a huge ensemble of vocal heavy-hitters, comprised of 18 women and 6 men, who pack the stage (as the spirits of the Addams' ancestors) without ever seeming over-crowded. Each is clad in the attire of their era (cowgirl, Puritan, caveman, etc.) which costumer Lori Stepp has created entirely in spectral shades of gray and white. As disembodied ghosts, they mainly watch the action unfold, yet all are constantly attentive and engaged. In fact, each is admirably committed to the persona of their "type," i.e. the caveman is usually somewhat aggressive, a stewardess is always perky, etc. The detail of the costumes is impressive - I even spotted pale white military insignia on the left chest of one phantom in uniform. Morticia's costume is quite a triumph of structural engineering, and there's a clever feature enabling her legs to be freed up for a tango.  Make-up design is by Dori Rueger, a veteran of the annual Dark Knight's Terror Trail Hallowe'en attraction, and is suitably gruesome for the ghosts, without ever being distracting.  I would note that on opening night, Fester, Lurch and Pugsley's make-up was less subtle than the more realistic look captured by the other principals, and probably could have benefited from some more time and more blending, and it would be nice to see Bender with more of Lurch's straight, slick hairstyle, and his height. Still, when Danny Harrington's stark lighting focused in on Pugsley, the resulting image could nearly have been a black and white drawing by Addams himself.

Harrington's scenic design is typical of his work, with many large set pieces rendered with intricate precision, and easily rolled on and off stage within seconds, while the grand staircase within the Addams estate seems solid, functional, and safe. Other scenes are depicted via drops, which are often painted with broader strokes and much less detail, yet these are always in the rear and not as important to the narrative. Although this is not a dance-heavy musical, choreographer Tracy Steele and director Harrington ensure that there is plenty of lively movement by the ensemble throughout. King and Paschal get the one big dance number, a seductive tango that grows in complexity and extravagance. Musical director Amanda Hines has a dream roster of voices to work with, and there's not a missed note to be found. Andrew Lippa's score is appealing, although often schmaltzy and largely forgettable. One nice touch I enjoyed was that different characters sing in differing styles that appropriate for their age and nature. Accordingly, Gomez's songs always have a touch of salsa and merengue, Fester's numbers borrow from the Tin Pan Alley sound of composers like Gershwin and Berlin, while Lucas and Wednesday's songs could easily be Troy-Gabriella duets from High School Musical.  His lyrics incorporate a lot of tricky internal rhyming, but most of the numbers are disposable pop, although pretty enough to listen to while they're being performed. The script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice touches all the bases and makes use of all the expected jokes that fans of the films or the tv series are expecting.

Part of the charm and appeal of the original Addams Family was its use of standard television tropes from family comedies, recast with a macabre setting. Unlike the Munsters, the Addams clan were not supposed to be vampires, just a family of lovable oddballs who were Goth before Goth was cool.  This musical version continues in that vein, with a climactic message of inclusion and tolerance that echoes "We're all in this together" from High School Musical, as well as "Let your freak flag fly" from Shrek the Musical (well, and David Crosby.)

There's not a weak moment or a weak link to be found in the cast's performance, and I feel certain that apart from a larger budget spread out on a larger stage, the audience is getting the same show you'd see from a professional touring company. That said, it's important to remember that this is still an adaptation of a 1960's sitcom, with no aspirations beyond entertainment. Note to parents: there's a little PG-13 language, and just like the tv series, virtually all of Gomez and Morticia's dialogue overflows with implications of bondage. So while this musical celebrates family values, I'd leave younger children at home. The Addams Family continues at Town Theatre through May 28; for ticket information, visit http://towntheatre.com/the-addams-family/ or call 803-799-2510.



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