In May, the DSI Comedy Theater – a fixture of the Carrboro arts scene for nearly a decade – became a fixture of the Chapel Hill arts scene when it moved from Carr Mill Mall to a new, larger location on West Franklin Street.
The move was initially prompted by a crisis (Carr Mill Mall elected not to renew DSI’s lease), but theater owner Zach Ward chose to see it as an opportunity – and now, just a few months later, he says the company is thriving in its new spot.
In those few months, DSI completely renovated the old Mansion 462 club at 462 W. Franklin, rebuilding it on the inside from the ground up. Now, the theater occupies about four times the space it had in Carrboro, including an expanded bar and (for the first time) its own separate rehearsal facility. In the process, the theater has added to the burgeoning cultural/commercial scene on West Franklin Street – which now includes newcomers like Al’s Burger Shack and the soon-to-arrive Carolina Ale House alongside older establishments like Local 506, the Cave, Carolina Brewery, and West End Wine Bar.
Zach Ward and DSI company members Ashley Melzer and Vinny Valdivia joined Aaron Keck (who’s also a DSI company member) on the WCHL Afternoon News.
As part of the move, DSI is inviting special guests to perform from around the country. This Friday and Saturday, the theater is welcoming Junior Varsity, an improv team from New York’s renowned Magnet Theater – and next month, the theater is hosting the hip-hop-based improv team North Coast as well as a one-night-only performance by nationally-acclaimed standups Myq Kaplan (a veteran of the TV show “Last Comic Standing”) and Zach Sherwin (a writer and performer on the popular YouTube series “Epic Rap Battles of History”).
Last Thursday, at my friends’ insistence, I finally saw the movie “Thor.” It’s a big-budget action spectacle, with lots of lights and noise and CGI, but the basic premise is Shakespearean: cast out of his family by the machinations of his scheming half-brother, left broken and penniless in an alien land, our brash, headstrong hero prince (read: he’s a jerk) must regain his status as favored son and heir by proving his moral worth to his aged, tough-but-kindly father.
So you’ll understand why I was feeling a bit of déjà vu the following evening, sitting in Deep Dish Theater for their production of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s “Life Is A Dream” – a classic Spanish play (often likened to Shakespeare) that follows pretty much exactly the same plot.
Eat your heart out, Joseph Campbell.
Written in 1635 during the Golden Age of Spanish literature, “Life Is A Dream” is the story of Segismundo, a prince who’s been imprisoned literally from birth by his father the king. Seems he was born under a dark cloud—the stars have decreed he’ll grow up to be a tyrant—and so for the good of the country, his father has kept him locked away, ignorant of his rightful status as heir to the throne. (Why the king doesn’t just kill him outright is never entirely explained.) But as the king grows old—and his other would-be heirs begin sparring over succession—he relents: okay, he says, we’ll take Segismundo out of his cell, reinstall him as prince, and see how he handles it. If he behaves, terrific. But if he acts like a tyrant—we’ll simply drug him, lock him back up, and tell him the whole adventure was all a dream.
Meanwhile, subplots abound: a woman named Rosaura disguises herself as a man (seriously, have I mentioned Shakespeare?) to infiltrate the kingdom and take revenge on the prince Astolfo, who’s stolen her honor; the king’s closest aide discovers her secret and realizes he’s duty-bound to her too; and meanwhile Astolfo schemes to marry his cousin, the princess Estrella, to lay claim to the throne, but he may or may not still be pining for Rosaura. It’s not easy to keep up with it all: the plot is about as complex as “Hamlet,” but while that narrative unfolds slowly over three-plus hours, Calderón crams all his plot points into an hour and 45 minutes. (“I have no idea what is going on,” I overheard one audience member say during intermission.)
But as with Shakespeare, the plot isn’t as important as the underlying philosophy. Are we free to chart the course of our own lives, or are we fated to turn out a certain way? How can we tell the difference between dream and reality? Is there a difference, really? Is life itself not just as temporary and fleeting and inscrutable as a dream? And what does that tell us about how to live our lives? The intrigues of kings and princes and spurned lovers abound—there’s even a swordfight!—but the real heart of “Life Is A Dream” is in its philosophical musings, and those are handled primarily by two characters: Segismundo himself, and Rosaura’s companion Clarin, a stereotypically wise fool reminiscent of the one in “King Lear.”
Alphonse Nicholson as Segismundo and Amber Wood as Rosaura, in “Life Is A Dream.” Photo by Jonathan Young via DeepDishTheater.org.
So that’s “Life Is A Dream.”
But more importantly: how good is it?
By the time I took my seat, I was already excited about the potential. In the few minutes before the house opened, as all the playgoers milled around in the lobby, we could hear passionate shouts and the clinking of blades on the other side of the wall—just one more last-minute rehearsal, I guess, but it sounded so cool. And the set design (by Lex van Blommestein) grabs your eye as soon as you walk in: angles and windows and disheveled shelves and an ethereal backdrop that evokes mountains, oceans—attractive and forbidding and foreboding, all at once.
But the play itself takes a long time to find its footing. I still remember a production of Craig Lucas’s “Reckless” I saw in college, in which the first act was so bad I almost left at intermission but the second act was some of the best theater I’d ever seen—and I got a similar vibe from “Life Is A Dream.” It wasn’t quite that extreme this time around—the first act had its good moments, the second act had its flaws—but the difference was definitely there. The first act feels like community theater, with all that that entails: nice costumes, fine production value, and performers going through the motions of acting without really finding the emotional connection to their characters. This is not really the actors’ fault, incidentally: “Life Is A Dream” is a fine play, but some of the characters’ motivations are simply baffling, especially early on. Why, for instance, does the king choose to imprison Segismundo for life instead of simply killing him? Having chosen to imprison him, why does he then choose to give him a classical education? Having done that, why does he then choose to free him, and why does he go about it in a way that’s all but guaranteed to elicit the worst possible reaction? John Boni’s performance as Basilio the king is actually quite good (notwithstanding his New York accent), but the character himself is impossible to believe. Same goes for Amber Wood as Rosaura, Anne-Caitlin Donohue as Estrella, and Peter Battis as Clotaldo the king’s aide—all of whom deliver fine performances despite having characters who make a number of brow-furrowing life decisions.
But the second act ultimately redeems the first, and it’s all thanks to the play’s two philosophers, the wronged prince Segismundo and the wise fool Clarin—the two richest and most sympathetic characters, and (as luck or fate would have it) in Deep Dish’s production the two best acted as well. As characters, Segismundo and Clarin actually don’t figure too much in the first act—but they dominate the second, as Segismundo gets swept up in the royal intrigue and Clarin is left alone with his thoughts. And what thoughts! As Clarin, David Hudson is simultaneously hilarious and insightful and touching and tragic; unburdened by all the mounting plot points, he’s free to deliver a memorable performance.
But it’s Alphonse Nicholson’s dazzling turn as Segismundo that truly makes “Life Is A Dream” worthwhile. Sticking with the Shakespeare theme, Segismundo’s journey is a bit like Ophelia’s in reverse: he starts the play half-mad, muttering wild things to himself while life goes on around him, and the plot turns on his gradually reconnecting with sanity and society. It’s a tough part to play, and Nicholson nails it. Intense, fierce, passionate and sympathetic, he commands the stage from the moment the spotlight first falls on him—and it’s his intensity, plus Hudson’s, that finally win over the audience in the end, though it takes a while to get there. During intermission, I overheard an audience member in my row cracking jokes about the play; by the end, I heard the same person gasping (with real emotion) during Segismundo’s final speech. I felt roughly the same way.
(It’s also worth noting, as a side point, that Nicholson is the only black actor in the cast—including Boni, who plays his father. This passes without comment in the play itself—and it’s obvious from the get-go that Nicholson was simply the best actor for the part—but casting a black actor in that role also adds an additional dimension to a story about a man who begins his life in bondage, is freed in a callous and capricious manner by a king who doesn’t particularly care whether he succeeds, is cast back into bondage and is forced to regain his freedom all over again. But the play is seventeenth-century Spanish, not twentieth-century American—so the audience is left to ruminate on that for itself.)
In the end, if “Life Is A Dream” doesn’t quite reach the heights of Deep Dish’s last production, the quietly stunning “Arcadia,” it’s still worthwhile (stick around, it’ll win you over) on the strength of Nicholson’s performance as Segismundo—who never quite reaches a conclusion on whether life really is a dream, but resolves to make the best of it nonetheless. How that’s to be defined is up to you.
“Life Is A Dream” runs through May 31 at Deep Dish Theater in University Mall.http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/life-dream-deep-dish-redemption-just-time/
CHAPEL HILL – Chapel Hill’s 41st annual Festifall on Franklin Street is Sunday.
***Listen to the Story***
“We always get excited for this beautiful event. It’s been voted the last 3 consecutive years as Chapel Hill’s best event,” event organizer Wes Tilghman says.
Festifall is on West Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill. Tilghman and Chapel Hill Public Library staff member, Megan Rosen say this year the event is bigger than ever.
Attendees can expect art, music, live performances, local food, good reads, and plenty of dancing.
“We’ve got over 80 artists, 4 live performance areas, and we’re going to invite some of the local restaurants to the streets with us to join in,” Tilghman says.
Six blocks of West Franklin Street will be filled with all types of different artists, and community organizations from the Chapel Hill and Carrboro area. Over 120 different exhibitors will be at the festival.
Chapel Hill’s newly expanded and improved Public Library will host one of the exhibits with a digital book-mobile. And Rosen says it won’t be hard for the attraction to catch your attention.
“We’re bringing in an 18-wheeler that’s loaded for bear,” Rosen says, “It’s a 74-foot long tractor trailer, that’s tricked out with broadband internet access, HD monitors, an awesome sound system, and lots of interactive video and instructional material about downloading e-books from the Chapel Hill Public Library.”
Rosen says library staff members will be there to answer questions, help people browse the library collections, and see what it is the new library has to offer.
“We’re really hoping to expand people’s awareness of their community-owned resources at the library,” Rosen says.
WCHL’s own Aaron Keck will host the Dance Evolution stage. The stage will feature a lot of different types of dance, and dance productions.
“They’re going to get the crowd pretty involved, so you might find yourself on stage,” Tilghman says, “There will be lots of fun, local entertainers that everyone knows, and have heard before.”
Tilghman and Rosen hope you come out Sunday to support local artists, to purchase gifts, to grub on great, local dishes; or go to browse 6 blocks of Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s finest.
For more information about Festifall, click here.http://chapelboro.com/news/arts/festifall-to-crowd-franklin-street-sunday/
CHAPEL HILL – On Friday, The ArtsCenter in Carrboro kicks off its twelfth annual 10 by 10 play festival. Ten actors, led by ten guest directors, will take the stage for ten ten-minute plays. Ron Stutts sat down with The ArtsCenter’s Artistic Director of Arts Center Stage, Jeri Lynn Schulke, to find out what viewers can expect from this year’s 10 by 10 festival.
Schulke says playwrights from all over the world sent their plays to The ArtsCenter for the chance to have their play performed. This year, The ArtsCenter received over 750 scripts this year.
“We get scripts from all over the country and in fact all over the world,” says Schulke. “We whittle that down to a fantastic ten plays.”
These plays range from an art installation by a bear in Sweden to a series of detective stories. Ten guest directors incorporate their own styles into each play, adding diversity than can appeal to any audience member, says Schulke.
“What I like about 10 by 10 is that you see these great actors play a variety of different roles, and then they get to work with lots of different directors,” says Schulke. “And if you don’t like one, wait ten minutes, and they’ll be another play, and you’ll love that one.”
The ArtCenter’s 10 by 10 festival holds historical significance, since it is one of the oldest ten-minute play festivals in the country.
“We are the third oldest ten-minute play festival,” says Schulke.
The festival begins this weekend and ends on July 21st. Vimala’s Curryblossom Café is catering the event.
“Audiences get to see ten great short plays and an evening of really great theater,” says Schulke. “Ten actors, ten directors, ten plays, ten by ten.”
For more information on the 10 by 10 play festival, you can go to The ArtsCenter’s website, artscenterlive.org, or call the box office for tickets at (919)-929-2787.http://chapelboro.com/news/arts/the-artscenter-launches-12th-annual-10-by-10-play-festival/
HILLSBOROUGH- Supporters of the Orange County Cultural Center say Hillsborough’s historic Whitted Building is the perfect place to host art events and performances, but neighbors say they’re not so sure.
Andrea Riley is chair of the OCCC’s Board of Directors. She says her group has been looking for a location for nearly 10 years.
“For the Orange County Cultural Center to exist, we have to have the chance to use this particular space at this particular time,” said Riley. “We have not found any other viable solution.”
But neighbors living on Tryon Street worry that the center’s plan to host performances, conferences, weddings and other events in the Whitted Building will ruin the small-town feel of Hillsborough’s historic district.
Steve Gardner was one of a handful of Tryon Street residents who shared their concerns with the board of county commissioners last week.
“The residents of this neighborhood did not sign up for and could never have envisioned living next door to an event house hosting everything from large conferences to weddings, events that will clog our streets with vehicular traffic, cause unacceptable levels of noise, and require street closures and re-routing and police to manage traffic flow,” said Gardner.
County commissioners agreed last week to set aside $1.5 million to renovate the space for government meetings, but held off on approving a plan that would have guaranteed space for the cultural center.
Instead, the board voted to explore how a broad range of Orange County’s arts organizations could use the space.
“We’re not making this exclusive to the Orange County Cultural Center,” said Bernadette Pelissier. “I think I’ve heard most everybody say it needs to be open to other nonprofits. So we want to engage all the nonprofits related to the arts.”
The board also urged cultural center representatives to reach out to neighbors before bringing their plan for a performance space back for consideration.
The renovations to the Whitted Building will take place over the summer. Commissioners will discuss other uses for the space sometime this fall.http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/plans-stall-for-a-cultural-center-at-hillsboroughs-whitted-building/