“Our Town” at Longstreet Theatre – a review by Jillian Owens

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The University of South Carolina’s second production of the 2014-15 academic year isn’t the most adventurous of choices, but it is a popular one. Often-produced, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (directed by Steven Pearson in USC’s Longstreet Theatre) tells the simple story of a simple town full of simple people,  but also tackles themes as heavy as why no one seems to appreciate life while they’re living it, and the meaning of eternity.

One of the reasons this play is so — in my opinion — over-performed is that it’s easy to produce. The script dictates that no props or sets be used. The actors must instead mime all action. Ladders become the second floors of houses where characters exchange secrets, and there are a few tables and chairs. That’s it. No real budget is required. Another reason this play is often-produced is that it’s extremely popular. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938, and its 1989 Broadway revival garnered a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for Best Revival.

 Matthew Cavender and Nicole Dietze - photo by Jason Ayer,
 Nicole Dietze and Matthew Cavender as George and Emily – photo by Jason Ayer

Our Town is divided into three acts: Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and Death and Dying.  The play opens in the tiny town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire in 1901. An equally omniscient and nostalgic Stage Manager (Carin Bendas) introduces us to several of the townsfolk and explains the town’s not-very-exciting history. We see the Gibbs and Webb families sending their children off to school. It’s all a bit tedious, and it’s meant to be. We meet the two teenagers, George Gibbs (Matthew Cavender) and Emily Webb (Nicole Dietze.) Much like the town of Grover’s Corners, there’s nothing really remarkable about either of them. We begin to see them fall in love. We see them marry. Nothing remarkable.

The third act poses an intriguing question: If you were dead and could go back to any day in your life, what would it be, and how would your perspective change? If youth is wasted on the young, is life wasted on the living? Do any of us really appreciate life while we’re in the moments that stack upon other moments until it’s all over? According to the Stage Manager, “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

photo by Jason Ayer
the wedding of George and Emily – photo by Jason Ayer

Most of it is frightfully simple and boring, as are most of our lives. And that’s kind of the point. If Our Town wasn’t written in this simplistic style and with so few things that actually happen, we wouldn’t be as able to empathize with the characters as we are. We can see ourselves in them…not in those exciting, electric moments that we wait for, but in the spaces in between when we’re cooking dinner, running errands, or just chatting with a friend. This is who we are.

This production of Our Town features a new crop of MFA students, as well as a few undergrads. Dietze and Cavender are naively pleasant enough as Emily and George. I enjoyed the easy and comfortable dynamic between Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs (Josh Jeffers and Candace Thomas), which was perhaps the most subtly touching and believable relationship in this production. The Stage Manager is usually cast as a male, but features a female actor, Carin Bendas, in this production. It’s a difficult role, as it isn’t really so much a character as it is a time-warping deliverer of exposition. Bendas comes off as off-puttingly smug at times, but still delivers some of the best lines of the show with empathy and compassion. All of the actors do an impressive job at miming props, and manage to deliver decent New Hampshire accents.

Carin Bendas - photo by JAsopn Ayer
Carin Bendas as the Stage Manager – photo by Jason Ayer

I was impressed by how visually interesting the “not really a set” set was. Neda Spalajkovic adhered to Wilder’s desires as much as she could, while still giving the audience something interesting to look at that establishes location and time changes. And even if you don’t care very much for this sort of show, you’ll be impressed with how she has worked with lighting designer Ashley Pittman to create a visually stunning final tableau.

photo by Jason Ayer
a scene from “Our Town” at Longstreet Theatre – photo by Jason Ayer

The plot is slow. The language is plain. But then you get lines like this that jump out at you and stir something inside of you:

“We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”

And this is why Our Town remains an American theatre classic.

~ Jillian Owens

Show times for Our Town are 8pm Wednesdays through Saturdays, with additional 3pm matinees on Sunday, November 16 and Saturday, November 22.  Tickets for the production are $12 for students, $16 for USC faculty/staff, military personnel and seniors 60+, and $18 for the general public.  Tickets can be purchased by calling 803-777-2551 or by visiting the Longstreet Theatre box office, which is open Monday-Friday, 12:30pm-5:30pm, beginning Friday, November 7.  Longstreet Theatre is located at 1300 Greene St.

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Film Review: The Ballad of Shovels & Rope (Screening at the Nick on Nov. 21)

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The key to a great music documentary is in the timing. D.A. Pennebaker caught Bob Dylan at his apotheosis as a folk singer and the height of his songwriting powers right before he turned decisively towards electric rock and roll for Dont Look Back (1967). Sam Jones started filming Wilco the day after they fired their original drummer and didn’t finish until they canned another band member, were dropped by their record label, and released their most critically acclaimed and commercially successful record to date in what became I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (2002). It’s easiest when it coincides with the band’s swan song—think The Last Waltz (1978) or Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012)—and, conversely, far more difficult to capture the moment where the band first emerges in the national spotlight.

The last of these is what The Ballad of Shovels & Rope, produced and directed by Jace Freeman and Sean Clark, poignantly does.

The film opens on Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, circa 2010, playing a weekly bar gig at El Bohio, a Cuban joint that shares a space with the Charleston Pour House. It’s a familiar sight to long-time fans, as Hearst and Trent could frequently be found playing shows like this for years in order to make a living. Not long after, we see Hearst waiting tables at Jestine’s kitchen, a part-time job that persists through the recording of their breakthrough album, 2012’s O Be Joyful.

And throughout most of the documentary, this precarious position is where the two find themselves in. Over the course of 2011 and 2012, Trent and Hearst would make a serious bid at making Shovels & Rope succeed, spending hundreds of days on the road in an old touring van retrofitted with an air mattress for nights spent in Wal-Mart parking lots. Sometimes the van serves as a makeshift studio as well—the film captures with crackling intensity the moment where Amanda Shires is shuffled into the van between soundcheck and show to record fiddle parts for a few of the songs.

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While the plot points of this story can seem a little predictable now—aborted recording session in L.A., lots of touring, home recording and trips to the Laundromat in between—the beauty here is all in the relationship between Trent and Hearst (and their dog Townes, who tours with them). Watching them casually interact with each other, whether they are writing songs together, working long hours in various studios, or deciding to sign a record deal, feels both intimate and revelatory. You get a sense of the full breadth of their relationship, with everything from slapstick humor and playful teasing mixed with subtle physical touches and smoldering emotional intensity.

Structurally, the filmmakers also wisely hang their narrative around the writing and recording of just a handful of songs, among them “Birmingham,” the lead single that would launch them into the national spotlight and later win “Song of the Year” at the Americana Music Awards in 2013. There’s a glorious amount of footage given to these creative moments, with everything from a half-written rendition of “Birmingham” by Hearst to a scene where the duo gathers around a living room microphone trying to nail harmony parts on “Hail Hail.” These are obviously great fan-pleasing moments, but it’s also just as likely to win over audiences unfamiliar with Shovels & Rope as well. In a casual, informal way, it’s an incredible glimpse of how a songwriting and recording partnership works, at least for them. Freeman and Clark also stick mostly with montages to capture the grueling grind of the road, using only choice bits like the Wal-Mart parking lot scene and casual backstage chatting with Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires (Trent and Hearst play them a hilarious double/single entendre tune called “Hard Hard Feeling,” which remains unreleased), wisely keeping the focus on songwriting and other scenes shot at the couple’s rustic Johns Island home.

Right around the one-hour mark, there is a palpable sense that the filmmakers are speeding up the story—we move quickly from record deal to  album release to Letterman appearance to the Americana Music Awards, with a montage that also sees the band upgrading to an RV and getting their own washer and dryer delivered to their house. The film only runs about ten more minutes, so it might feel a bit tacked on or like a rushed ending for some, but I can’t help but be happy with the balance of the film. It’s the moments of struggle and uncertainty that are the appeal here, and the adrenaline rush of success at the close that the film gives up probably mimics a bit what the duo (and, to a lesser extent, the filmmakers themselves) felt. “Being in a rock band is a lot like playing the lotto at the gas station,” Hearst opines during a late interview. It’s an apt comparison, and a fitting one that hits on the unlikeliness of the Shovels & Rope success story. And it’s all the more amazing for having been captured on film by these guys.

The film will be screened The Nickelodeon Theatre on Friday, November 21st, at 11pm, with an opening set by Mason Jar Menagerie. DVD copies of the doc will be available starting December 1, with preorders available now at The Moving Picture Boys website here.

Note: You can still attend the 2014 JAY Awards, which start at 7pm, and see the film as well!

Trailer:

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Trustus Reprises A Christmas Carol

Stann Gywnn and Catherine Hunsinger
Stann Gywnn and Catherine Hunsinger

Trustus Theatre is reviving its hit production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on the Thigpen Main Stage this November. This recent adaptation by Patrick Barlow, the Tony-award winning playwright of The 39 Steps, is a whirlwind telling of the classic holiday story where five actors take on all of the roles. Scrooge and all of his ghostly counterparts will return to the Thigpen Main Stage as A Christmas Carol opens Friday November 21st at 8:00pm. The show will run through December 20th, 2014. Tickets may be purchased at www.trustus.org.

 

Last season’s production of Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the Dickens classic was met with raves from sold-out audiences and critics, so Trustus decided to revive the production in their 30th season. While A Christmas Carol is a family-friendly production, what makes this version a Trustus show is that the script challenges five gifted actors to embody all of the characters while creating a live musical score on stage. The product is an unforgettable evening where a classic story is told in an unexpected way.

 

For the uninitiated, A Christmas Carol introduces audiences to Ebenezer Scrooge – a wealthy miser who has neither love for humankind nor any holiday cheer. His clerk Bob Cratchit works in a cold corner of the office just to make ends meet for his family, especially his ailing son Tiny Tim. When Scrooge is visited by his deceased business partner Jacob Marley, a night of haunts begins as spirits take Scrooge to the past, present, and future in an attempt to show him the good in humanity and the benefits of charity.

 

Trustus Co-Artistic Director Chad Henderson is back in the director’s chair for this revival. “A Christmas Carol is my favorite holiday story and tradition,” said Henderson. “Scrooge’s journey of redemption has always been appealing to me. This story is a classic because it’s one-of-a-kind – a Christmas ghost story. I’m looking forward to revisiting this production and creating some new moments that will surprise the audience.”

 

The Trustus production boasts the acclaimed cast from last year’s production. Local favorite Stann Gwynn (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Doubt) will be portraying the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. Trustus Company members Catherine Hunsinger (Constance), Avery Bateman (Ragtime, Ain’t Misbehavin’), Scott Herr (The House of Blue Leaves, The Velvet Weapon), and new cast member Kendrick Marion (Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Black Man…Complex) join forces to bring the other characters of Dickens’ story to life on stage.

 

While this adaptation calls for four actors to play numerous roles throughout the performance, it also asks them to create a live score throughout the show. Carols, sound effects and underscoring will be created and performed live on stage by the players. The music will be an unexpected mix of keyboards, cello, beatboxing, a Line6 delay modulator, a VocalistLive, violin, guitar, and of course the combined voices of the performers. “The live music is a unique combination of sounds,” said Director Chad Henderson. “It’s derived from the traditions of Reggie Watts, Danny Elfman, Justin Timberlake, and Panic! At The Disco.” While audiences may hear non-traditional takes on the carols in the show, they can be assured that the classic Dickens tale remains intact.

 

Trustus Theatre’s A Christmas Carol opens on the Trustus Main Stage on Friday, November 21st at 8:00pm and runs through December 20th, 2014. Thigpen Main Stage shows start at 8:00pm Thursdays through Saturdays, and Sunday matinees are at 3:00pm. Tickets are $22.00 for adults, $20.00 for military and seniors, and $15.00 for students. Half-price Student Rush-Tickets are available 15 minutes prior to curtain.

 

Trustus Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady St. and on Pulaski St. The Main Stage entrance is located on the Publix side of the building.

 

For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 pm at 803-254-9732. Visit www.trustus.org for all show information and season information.

 

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