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Heroism, Quiet And Loud, At Deep Dish And PlayMakers

There are many kinds of heroes. There are the ones who make the news, who emerge in a crisis and do something extraordinary; there are the ones who stand up and cry out against injustice, even at the risk of their livelihoods and lives…and then there are the quiet heroes, the ones who go about their business, the ones you never really see. They face their adversities, sometimes with courage, sometimes with resignation, sometimes with anguish and bitterness and rage – but they face them, always, and the world turns on, just a little easier, just a little better.

I’m thinking about heroes this week. On Sunday WCHL hosted our big annual luncheon for all the folks we’ve recognized as Hometown Heroes throughout the year; outgoing fire chief Dan Jones delivered a terrific speech about the heroism he sees every day and the value of “paying it forward.” We recognize all kinds of heroes – sometimes the special ones who come through in a crisis, but more often than not the everyday heroes, the quiet heroes, the firefighters and police officers and community builders and teachers and volunteers.

Down in Alabama, it’s not so quiet. It’s the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, and there are thousands of people there now – including many from our own community – remembering the stand those marchers took in 1965, the risks they assumed, the sacrifices they made, the lives they gave, calling for justice even as the blows rained down around them. Heroism.

So it’s fitting that both of our local theater companies, PlayMakers at UNC and Deep Dish at University Mall, are running plays about heroism this month: the World War I classic “Journey’s End” at Deep Dish and the Henrik Ibsen/Arthur Miller collab “An Enemy of the People” at PlayMakers. Both shows are essential: challenging, troubling, disturbing, and difficult, but essential nonetheless. Check them out.

“Enemy of the People” is about a loud hero, albeit one who maybe didn’t intend to be. Thomas Stockmann (Broadway vet Michael Bryan French) is the official physician of a small town whose economy hinges on a single tourist attraction – a public health spa with water from a local spring. But the water is contaminated, Stockmann discovers, with germs from a tannery upstream. The town must know! But the mayor (fellow Broadway vet Anthony Newfield) cares more about the economy – the local muckraking newspaperman (Benjamin Curns) is a sellout – the business leader (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) refuses to upset the established order – and the nameless rabble of townsfolk are easily convinced that Stockmann’s just a malicious agitator. He’ll stand alone – the sole voice for justice and truth in a vicious and misguided world. Henrik Ibsen wrote the play as a critique of mob rule in a democracy; Arthur Miller adapted it into English as an allegory of those heroes who stood up to Joe McCarthy in the 1940s and 50s. (And its cultural reach extends even further: the struggle between the corrupt mayor and the sole-voice-of-reason scientist reminded me of “Jaws,” and indeed “Jaws” was reportedly inspired by this play.)

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann and Michael Bryan French as Thomas Stockmann in "Enemy of the People." (Photo by Jon Gardiner via PlayMakersRep.org.)

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann and Michael Bryan French as Thomas Stockmann in “Enemy of the People.” (Photo by Jon Gardiner via PlayMakersRep.org.)

Meanwhile across town, “Journey’s End” takes us to the trenches of World War I, where six British officers are barracked just before a major German assault. Osborne (Eric Carl) is the “uncle” of the group, who keeps the rest sane – especially Stanhope (Gus Allen), a brilliant officer who’s having trouble keeping it together. Osborne and Stanhope are quiet heroes, caring for others before themselves, doing their best to soldier through, put on brave faces, and not let on that they too are afraid, anxious, bitter. In contrast to Stockmann of “Enemy,” who stands alone, Osborne and Stanhope and their fellow officers stand together – knowing that if one falters, the rest will fall. (Like “Enemy,” “Journey’s End” is historically significant: along with “All Quiet on the Western Front,” it’s one of the first pieces of literature to depict war realistically, without all the glorious/patriotic overtones you so often see. Playwright R.C. Sherriff was himself a WWI vet; he said he simply wanted to show the war as it was.)

Eric Carl as Osborne and Gus Allen as Stanhope in "Journey's End." Photo via DeepDishTheater.org.

Eric Carl as Osborne and Gus Allen as Stanhope in “Journey’s End.” Photo via DeepDishTheater.org.

You’ll want to see both before their runs are up. At Deep Dish, scenic designer Michael Allen has created a stunning recreation of a WWI barracks; you can smell the wood as you enter the theater. Carl’s stellar performance as the kindly Osborne holds the show together, bolstered by terrific supporting turns from Carl Martin as the unflappable Trotter and David Hudson (also great in DD’s “Life Is A Dream”) as Mason the cook. At PlayMakers, director Tom Quaintance makes full use of the versatile stage (the dark ending is particularly spectacular) and French and Newfield anchor the show as the main antagonists. (Did I mention their characters are also brothers?)

But it’s the celebration of heroism that stands out. It’s easier to cheer for Stockmann, the loud hero of “Enemy” who stands up to injustice – on opening night, the woman sitting next to me kept nodding her head and saying “Yes!” when the character was delivering his choicest lines. He’s a whistleblower, a crusader for truth, and we all like unfairly maligned whistleblowers and crusaders for truth. Then again, Stockmann is also a deeply flawed character in a way that “Journey’s” heroes are not: he’s prideful, stubborn, a blowhard, a hard-head, willing to throw his family into the line of fire even when offered an easy way to withdraw quietly and let the truth come out on its own. We sympathize with him, we might pity him, but we probably don’t like him. The heroes of “Journey” are more pristine: Osborne is fiercely other-regarding and quietly self-sacrificing; Stanhope is less sympathetic – given to drinking and angry outbursts – but we know it’s only the strain of war that’s made him that way. They’re not the sort of rah-rah heroes you stand up and shout for, like Stockmann is – but their quiet bravery is every bit as heroic as Stockmann’s brash stand. Maybe more so.

In the end, though, it’s not the fictional heroes on stage that matter so much as the real ones in the audience. “Journey” and “Enemy” both hold up a mirror to us as spectators and force us to examine ourselves: how heroic are we? In “Journey’s End” we see all kinds of soldiers, from the gung-ho and brave to the cowardly. (“Coward” here is a relative term: all the soldiers are terrified of war; it’s merely a question of how they handle it.) Where on the spectrum would we fall? In “Enemy” the mirror rises in an even more dramatic way: partway through the second act, the actors very purposefully look the audience in the eyes and give them the chance to speak out against the injustices they’re seeing on stage. (You’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s a palpable moment.) In that moment, the fate of the characters is in our hands: we could stand up, we could raise our fists, we could shout. It would alter the rest of the show, of course, but we could do it! But of course we don’t. We’re angered by the injustice, but we don’t speak. We’re just the audience. We’re there to observe. It’s not our place. It would upset the order of things. And we’d never upset the order of things. It’s a nice, respectable theater, after all. This isn’t Rocky Horror

And so the moment passes, and the injustice proceeds.

And when the lights go up we stand and give a rousing, rah-rah ovation to the cast.

“Journey’s End” runs at Deep Dish from now through March 21; visit DeepDishTheater.org for showtimes and ticket info. “Enemy of the People” runs at PlayMakers through March 15; visit PlayMakersRep.org for showtimes and ticket info.


Strong Chapel Hill Theater Season Continues

It’s already been a strong theater season in Chapel Hill – and it gets even stronger this weekend, as an innovative new musical makes its Southeastern debut at Deep Dish and two stage classics open at Playmakers.

At Deep Dish Theater Company, Halloween is opening night for “The Landing,” a new musical – or trio of musicals, to be precise – from John Kander, the composer of “Chicago” and “Cabaret.” Kander and playwright Greg Pierce have created three mini-musicals, each with a four-person cast (the same four actors appear in all three) and a bit of a Twilight Zone flair. Deep Dish Artistic Director Paul Frellick directs the musical, which stars John Allore, Mark Ridenour, Erin Tito, and Neil Bullard (who’s only 13). Frellick says he’s particularly excited about this show, because Deep Dish’s production is the first time “The Landing” has been staged anywhere in the world outside New York.

Paul Frellick and Neil Bullard joined WCHL’s Aaron Keck on the air last week to discuss “The Landing.”


Meanwhile,  previews begin on Saturday for two shows at Playmakers Repertory Company: Shakespeare’s classic “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the acclaimed Sondheim musical “Into the Woods.” Playmakers is staging the two in rotating repertory: previews run throughout the week, then both shows officially open on Saturday, November 8, and run through December 6. In addition to the Playmakers team, the shows feature a number of guest performers and directors – including Lisa Brescia, who’s playing the Witch in “Into the Woods.” (Brescia has some experience playing musical witches: she’s also played Elphaba in “Wicked” on Broadway.)

“Midsummer” director Shana Cooper joined Aaron on the air this week…


…as did Playmakers associate artistic director Jeff Meanza, who’s playing the Baker in “Into the Woods.”


“The Landing” runs through November 22 at Deep Dish Theater Company, located in University Mall. Visit this link for ticket information, as well as a schedule of related events and discussions.

“Midsummer” and “Into the Woods” run in rotation through December 6 at Playmakers on UNC campus. Visit this link for tickets to “Into the Woods,” or this link for tickets to “Midsummer.”


PlayMakers Opens Season: Chekov, With A Twist

Head to PlayMakers Repertory Company this month and catch the opening play of its 2014-15 mainstage season: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” a Tony-winning comedy by Christopher Durang.

Inspired by the Russian playwright Anton Chekov, “Vanya” won the Tony for best play in 2013. PlayMakers’ production is directed by Libby Appel – who has not only directed all of Chekov’s plays in the past, but also translated five of his plays into English.

Julie Fishell – last seen at PlayMakers as Sara Jane Moore in “Assassins” – plays Masha. Fishell spoke with WCHL’s Aaron Keck earlier this week.

Previews began Wednesday. Opening night is Saturday, September 20, and the play runs through October 5. For showtimes and tickets, visit PlayMakersRep.org.


Last Chance: “A Kid Like Jake” At Deep Dish

Theater season is in full swing in Chapel Hill – this weekend, PlayMakers Repertory Company opens its 2014-15 season with “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” – and as things kick into high gear, you still have one more chance to catch the season’s first big don’t-miss-it production, the terrific “A Kid Like Jake” at Deep Dish. It closes this weekend after a successful run, with shows in the University Mall theater on Thursday at 7:30 and Friday and Saturday at 8:00.

For tickets, visit this link.

Making its first appearance here after a successful run in New York last year, “Jake” is the story of Alex (Meredith Sause) and Greg (Jim Moscater), two parents trying to place their four-year-old son Jake in an elite private preschool. It’s harder than it sounds: there are dozens of applicants for every open spot, and the schools are looking for any excuse to rule candidates out. They even subject the kids to high-stakes placement exams. (It’d be farcical if it weren’t true.) Alex and Greg seek advice from Judy (Rasool Jahan), the renowned expert who runs Jake’s current school, and she suggests they emphasize Jake’s most distinguishing characteristic – namely his “gender-variant play,” the fact that he likes playing with dolls and dressing up as Disney princesses. Alex balks: she doesn’t want to force him into a label prematurely. (Her own parents, it’s hinted, had done a similar thing to her when she was young, and she’s still a bit resentful.) But is Alex right to be worried – or is her fear just masking her own insecurities?

Before the show began its run, I spoke on the air with Meredith Sause and Deep Dish artistic director Paul Frellick.

I got to see “A Kid Like Jake” twice, once with some friends at a preview and again on opening night. “Intense” was the word I heard the most, from audiences on both nights. “Jake” takes a little time to develop – there are many different sources of conflict at play, and the early scenes are there primarily just to set them up – but then tensions quickly simmer, build, bubble over, and finally explode in a pair of breathtaking back-to-back scenes.

In the process, we get an insightful look at a couple in crisis – two generally decent people who are just trying to do right by their son, but who are also very human, and very flawed. The play’s best feature is its naturalism, the degree to which Alex and Greg and Judy all talk like real people. To the extent that that’s the case, the fact that Sause and Moscater and Jahan are all Trained Actors actually works against them at first – the actors are well-rehearsed, but the characters are clearly making it up as they go, and that creates a bit of a disconnect. Once the play begins building to its climax, though, the emotion takes over, the actors let loose, and it’s a roller coaster from there on out. You’ll remember the two confrontation scenes near the end, but they’re bookended by a pair of quieter but equally powerful moments: Alex having a panic attack in a doctor’s office (wonderfully played by Sause) and a dream sequence where – well, I won’t give anything away. (Both scenes feature Jess Jones, effective in a smaller role.)

a kid like jake meredith sause jim moscater

Jim Moscater and Meredith Sause. Photo via DeepDishTheater.org.

Extremely well-written by first-time playwright Daniel Pearle, “A Kid Like Jake” raises and explores a lot of difficult issues without pretending there are any easy answers. Liberal as she claims to be, Alex is squeamish when it comes to violating gender and sexuality norms, and that squeamishness clouds her judgment: she’ll gladly indulge Jake’s Cinderella fix behind closed doors, but she gets uptight whenever it’s mentioned in public. But is she wrong to want to avoid fixing labels on kids before they’re ready? “There is such a thing as a phase,” she says; we doubt her motives, but is she incorrect? Is Greg’s judgment any more trustworthy, any less biased? Is Judy’s? It’s telling that Jake himself is never seen and never heard: the play doesn’t revolve around him so much as his parents’ perception of him; and the heart of the conflict is in the fact that neither Alex, nor Greg, nor Judy, nor we in the audience, will ever know how closely the perception matches the reality. All we can do is guess.

Writing those last two sentences reminds me of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who also wrote about that gap between perception and reality: we can never know what’s really there, he argued; we can only know what our senses tell us is there. Kant, as it happened, is also the philosopher who developed this succinct rule for how to act morally: “Act in such a way that you treat (others) never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

“A Kid Like Jake” is about raising a child, it is about family, it is about gender, it is about education, it is about a lot of things – but above all this it is about people who try to reach that moral standard, without ever quite getting there. We’re all in the same boat.

“A Kid Like Jake” runs through Saturday at Deep Dish Theater in University Mall.


“Hairspray” Arrives At PlayMakers

Good morning, Baltimore!

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Summer Youth Conservatory is staging the hit musical “Hairspray” this weekend at the Paul Green Theare in the Center for Dramatic Art on Country Club Road.

A story of inclusivity set in 1962 Baltimore, “Hairspray” is the story of plus-size teen Tracy Turnblad and her push to get recognized as a dancer on the “Corny Collins Show” – while joining the fight for racial integration.

Watch a trailer for the show.

The Summer Youth Conservatory brings area high schoolers together each year for an intensive five-week training program. “Hairspray” marks the culmination of this year’s conservatory.

Director Desdemona Chiang, choreographer Matt Steffens, and actors Sadie Frank and Daniel Johnson (both rising high school seniors) joined Aaron Keck on WCHL to discuss the show.

“Hairspray” opened on Wednesday and runs through Sunday, with shows at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and 2:00 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $10-15; you can purchase them either by calling 919-962-PLAY, by visiting the PlayMakers box office, or online at PlayMakersRep.org.


"You Gotta Go" To PlayMakers This Week

You definitely need to go to PlayMakers this week, not only to see Tony award-winning “Urinetown: The Musical,” but also to see the Tony award-winning actors and actresses of the future.   

“Urinetown” – winner of the Tony award for Best Musical — is an edgy, witty satire about a society in which 20 years of drought have led to truly draconian water restrictions, like laws requiring people to relieve themselves in public, pay-per-use facilities.  People who don’t obey the law are arrested and treated like criminals. 

It is a tightly-controlled society.  But what if the people rebel?   Ah, now you have what the New York Times calls “simply the most gripping and galvanizing theater experience in town, equal parts visceral entertainment jolt and lingering provocation.”

PlayMaker’s performance of “Urinetown” this week (July 19-22) will star up-and-coming actors from PlayMaker’s Summer Youth Conservatory.  The conservatory provides talented high school students the opportunity to work with professional directors, choreographers, and musical directors. 

I went to see a rehearsal of “Urinetown” this week and was impressed with the quality of the acting and singing, as well as with the grittiness and intrigue of the plotline. 

CHHS senior Adrian Thornburg, as Bobby Strong
in PlayMakers Summer Youth Conservatory production of Urinetown

“‘Urinetown’ is easily one of my favorite plays,” says Adrian Thornburg, a Chapel Hill High School senior who plays romantic lead Bobby Strong.  “The music is great, the play is hilarious, but there’s so much more to it, that you’ll be thinking about it for weeks after curtain.”  Thornburg starred in CHHS’ production of “Hairspray” this spring and directed CHHS’ production of “The Fantasticks” in February.

Co-director Julie Fishell, a longtime PlayMakers acting company member and UNC dramatic art professor, looks forward to working with the Youth Conservatory each summer.  “I consider this artistic evangelism, in the best of all senses,” Fishell notes.  “We give aspiring student actors the experience of working in a professional theater.”

“It’s great to get a peek into the professional world and see how things are run,” agrees Laura Bevington, an East Chapel Hill High School junior who plays heroine Hope Cladwell.  Bevington is getting to be a veteran of musicals despite her young age. Prior to starring in “Urinetown,” Bevington performed in East Chapel Hill High School’s productions of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Chicago.”

Students in the production describe their experience preparing for this show as “exciting… intense… hard… fun… exhausting… so worth it… awesome.”  They applaud the co-directors, Fishell and Jeff Stanley, “They are such talented directors that they make us look talented!”  Well, as someone who sat and watched the rehearsal, it was clear that talent filled the theater.

Fishell and Stanley do not just direct the students; they engage them in a collaborative process to help bring out the best performance in each student.  “If you just dictate,” explains Stanley, “they get bored, they switch off.  Our job is to foster their creativity without being didactic.”  As a result, Stanley notes, “the students have endless amounts of ideas.”

Well, the ideas have paid off because my 10-year-old daughter and I were riveted by the students’ performance.  We will be there on opening night, this Thursday, July 19th.  If you cannot join us on opening night, be sure to see the performance before the curtain goes down after the last show on Sunday, July 22nd.  Tickets are only $15 for the general public and $10 for students/children.  You can also purchase them online here.

You “gotta go.”  And don’t worry, the bathroom facilities at the Paul Green Theater are free.