Reverse Negative at The Columbia Theatre for the Performing Arts through July 31
Driving back from the North Shore recently, lightning crackled in the distance over Metairie and the West Bank. Lightning, however, had already sizzled earlier in the evening in Hammond at RoBenHood Productions and The Columbia Theatre for the Performing Arts’ presentation of Reverse Negative, an evening of one-act plays. Frothy summertime fare? Not in Hammond. Rather, a crackling evening of edgy theater.
RoBenHood is the brainchild of Robinson J. Cyprian and Ben C. Dougherty. Last year, Cyprian directed Dougherty in The Pillowman. Earlier this year, Dougherty directed Cyprian in Topdog/Underdog. Both productions were impressive. For Reverse Negative, each gent directed a short two-character play along with Benjamin Norman who helmed the third script. (A fourth one-act had to be canceled the first weekend due to the (non-Covid) illness of one of the actors; hopefully, it will join the others for the final weekend.)
The Columbia Theatre has been known mostly for hosting touring productions but, under the leadership of Artistic Director James Winter, it is now producing more works under its own banner. Norman, the Theatre’s Associate Director, was instrumental in bringing Reverse Negative to the venue’s one-room Conference Center, which is adjacent to the 830-seat main auditorium and has been repurposed for Reverse Negative into a no-frills theater-in-the-round.
Reverse Negative kicked off with Neil LaBute’s a gaggle of saints, the centerpiece from his bash: latterday plays triad. In parallel monologues, John and Sue, yuppies-to-be Boston College students, casually tell of an evening they spent with friends at a fancy party held at the Plaza Hotel in New York.
For Sue, a girly girl in a little black dress seemingly more interested in getting her MRS than a BA, it was a fun night celebrating her and John’s fourth anniversary filled with champagne and “miles of chiffon and silk”. For John, the event might be more memorable for the abhorrent act of homophobic violence he and two friends commit in the wee hours in Central Park’s Rambles while their gal pals are sleeping off their cocktails in their hotel rooms.
Dougherty staged this as though John and Sue were two animals pacing around and around in a cage or some sort of terrarium as we looked on. While always keeping the momentum going forward, as the tale became more intense, he slowed down the tempo of the dialog for maximum effect. Subtle lighting changes enhanced the shifting emotional terrain as well.
Dark hair setting off her almond-shaped face, Payton Core gave Sue an idiosyncratic spin; she painted her as certainly not stupid, but not brilliant either, perfectly in keeping with LaBute’s characterization. Though Sue can come off as a one-note creation, Core found endless nuance and plentiful vocal details with which to enhance her lines.
Like Core, Jonathan Damare wholly inhabited his character. His tuxedo-clad, offhandedly handsome John was a guy’s guy, someone you could easily picture eventually having a daily commute from suburbia. Occasionally puffing up with pride, Damare never made John anything more than what he is; in fact, it’s his ordinariness that makes his actions so chilling.
One might have only asked that there had been a smidge more, in both the acting and direction, to hint at what was to come, the merest intimation that John might be a self-hating closeted gay.
That said, though a gaggle of saints debuted only in 1999, in today’s world where a contestant on The Wheel of Fortune can thank his husband, transgender politicians are winning office, and many college students exhibit a fluid sexuality (and most others seem accepting of that), gaggle can seem less like a contemporary playlet and more like a historical drama. And that’s not even taking into account that Scruff and Grindr have mostly eliminated public trysts not to mention that Central Park now closes at 1am!
In Bolero (2001) by David (All in the Timing) Ives, we see a young couple in bed in the middle of the night. The Woman (Elizabeth Beagley), as the character is called, thinks she hears someone, but in Tristan King’s haunting sound design, it seems to be just the wind…at first.
As her partner (Liam Sawyer McCarty) tries to comfort her, she fears a possible building collapse, a threat made all the more understandable in light of the Florida condominium tragedy. She then believes voices are…but no spoilers here.
Ives expertly knows how to build tension, though I could’ve done without a detour into overly philosophical territory (you may feel differently if you’re into that sort of thing), and, ultimately, Bolero veers into the Twilight Zone with a not too surprising ending.
With the help of his cast who make a wholly convincing couple, Director Cyprian beautifully ramps up the emotionally intensity of this pas de deux which may leave you pondering its significance long after the lights have come up.
Marco Ramirez’s 3:59am (a drag race for two actors) features two men who find themselves in their cars in the middle of the night. Contrasting types, each is in a fragile emotional state as fate crazily has their paths cross.
The most recent of the three plays (2014), like a gaggle of saints, 3:59am features overlapping monologues as Ramirez, who has written for Sons of Anarchy and Orange Is the New Black, discovers the poetry in his ineffably sad tale, where machismo trumps sense and tragedy is just narrowly avoided.
If I didn’t get all the car/driving references, I highly admired Norman’s direction of his ace cast (Isaiah Smith, Taylor Larche, both veering from regular guys to men possessed and back) which transforms in an instant from realistic to incorporating surreal movements while also finding the humor within the drama.
Done on a slightly raised platform in the middle of the Conference Center, Reverse Negative faltered only when, on occasion, an actor faced away making it a little difficult to catch all the dialog due to the room’s less than ideal acoustics.
Other than that, Reverse Negative was a 100% positive experience.
And as lagniappe was the discovery that downtown Hammond has as vibrant a dining and nightlife scene as can be found anywhere else nearby.
Reverse Negative plays Friday and Saturday, July 30 and 31, at 7:30 p.m. More info and tickets at https://www.columbiatheatre.org/whats-on/2020-2021-reverse-negative
Clue at 30 by Ninety Theatre through August 1
It was done in Mandeville. With a script. By the 30 by Ninety Theatre company. A murder? No. Just a very funny piece of theater.
“It” is Clue. Or more properly Clue: On Stage, based on the “Paramount Pictures Motion Picture”. Based on the Hasbro board game. Words I never thought I’d write in a theater review.
Fortunately, Sandy Rustin’s script hews fairly closely to Jonathan Lynn’s wacky screenplay (or so my companion informed me as I’ve never seen the film). Beginning on a rainy night at the grand Foggy Manor, this farce-meets-murder-mystery set in the 1950s McCarthy Era features bad puns & double entendres, spit takes & slapstick, and a mysterious host who’s blackmailing the six colorfully iconic guests.
As various prior entanglements between the guests and the manor’s staff are revealed, the bodies pile up (and up and up), and by the end there are all sorts of crazy twists and turns. Murder on the Orient Express it ain’t, but for entertaining summertime fare, it’s a knock-out.
Director Laurie Bonura manages to create a multi-roomed mansion on the small inventive set, and also deploys her cast throughout the theater as they search for clues and suspects. She keeps the pace going, whips up lots of small comic bits and wild visual jokes, and wisely doesn’t camp things up any more than they already are.
Seen last year as a virulently racist juror in 12 Angry Men, Tom Hassinger, as the hard of hearing Colonel Mustard who struggles to comprehend nuance, in Clue is guilty of an exquisite cluelessness which he wields with brio.
Courtney Calato Lee oozes low class elegance as the soignée Mrs. White while Cashel Rodriguez’ sexy redheaded Miss Scarlet doesn’t take any guff from anyone. Each of these actresses locates her character’s playful sweet spot, neither over- nor underdoing the requisite shtik.
Shannon Williams as Mr. Green (a homosexual!), Adolfo Rodriguez as the lecherous Professor Plum, and Amy Ridell, who serves up delicious comic effect as she slurps her soup, as the dithery Mrs. Peacock, all contribute to the madness.
Tall and lean, Alan Talbot makes Wadsworth, the manor’s butler, properly stern with an occasional burst of apoplexy. Prior to the mystery being solved, his souped-up recapitulation of the plot is deftly ridiculous and ridiculously deft.
The only clue that a cast member doesn’t quite recall the show’s Eisenhower setting? When the House Un-American Activities Committee was referred to as the “House Un-American Committee”. Other than that, there’s no mystery but that 30 by Ninety’s Clue is a zany, popular crowd-pleaser.
I believe Clue’s final weekend is sold out, but for more info and to see if there might be any ticket availability go to https://30byninety.com/shows/clue/
The Comedy of Errors at Tulane’s Lupin Theater through August 7
I was delighted that the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane (SFT) had joined the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen and Tulane’s Summer Lyric Theatre to once again offer live performances in Orleans Parish with its production of The Comedy of Errors. I just wish I could be more enthusiastic about it.
Director Jon Greene has reset this early comedy of the Bard in 1980s South Beach; think Miami Vice pastels and coolness. This allows Joan Long to provide a multi-functional art deco facade, and Christopher Arthur & Hope Bennett some chic duds, but, otherwise, I never quite discerned what or how this setting added to the script.
To be sure, one doesn’t approach Comedy looking for great depth. It doesn’t feature keen psychological insight like Much Ado About Nothing or moral complexity like Measure for Measure. This tale of mistaken identities can be fairly judged by how many laughs it provides.
And that’s where this Comedy comes up short. Greene plays up the frenetic slapstick humor, particularly with the separated-at-birth twin Dromios, servants to the separated-at-birth twin Antipholuses (Antipholi?), but for the most part it’s not grounded in the characters themselves. Matthew Raetz and Reid Williams, two fine actors, do what’s asked of them, but we never really get a sense of who they are.
Looking a bit like Dana Carvey in Wayne’s World but outfitted in midriff-baring tops and short-shorts, these Dromios seem more like they’d be stoner dudes. Because of this, Greene’s quick pacing of all too obvious double entendres and “Who’s on first?” style humor doesn’t land the way it should, in part because the verbal humor of Shakespeare’s time just isn’t that funny any more.
It’s a shame because I think, especially in these times, Greene could’ve explored more deeply the contrast between the humor and the violence from which it emerges (masters abusing servants in a manner reminiscent of Warner Brothers cartoons). I note this because I have long admired Greene’s work, particularly his imaginative and incisive direction of Faustus and Barbecue, and had high expectations for what he would do with Shakespeare.
Where those expectations were met, and exceedingly so, were in the performances of Mack Guillory III (Antipholus of Syracuse) and Michael Forest (Antipholus of Ephesus) as both actors play the reality of their successful businessmen with laudable results.
As circumstances spin out of control, Guillory’s Antipholus understandably becomes bewildered and he mines the humor in his lines to marvelous effect in a wholly organic manner. Likewise, when Forest, whose Walter Lee Younger exuded drama and passion in 2019’s A Raisin in the Sun, pops his eyes when he can’t comprehend what’s going on around him, it’s not cartoonish silliness, but a humongous explosion of natural frustration.
Similarly, Monica R. Harris, as Forest’s sister-in-law Luciana, not only gets off pointed lines about love with conviction, but then radiates authentic astonishment at being pursued by her “brother-in-law” as Guillory’s Antipholus has fallen in love with her. In moments like these, it’s impossible not to be touched by the humanity of these characters.
Leyla Beydoun, incarnates Adriana, Antipholus of Ephesus’ neglected spouse, as a Real Housewife, emphasizing her loud diva tendencies to good comic effect; she makes us understand why her hubby might be looking elsewhere for affection. Beydoun, though, could have layered her performance with some moments where we see why she still loves and cares about her Antipholus.
As the object of Forest’s roving eye, Emily C. Russell is very good, bringing a sensible approach to the proceedings. She might’ve benefitted, tho, from a different outfit and wig as she looked more like a PTA chairwoman then the “Courtesan” she’s listed as in the program.
Kudos to Pamela D. Roberts who took over the role of Egeon at the last minute for an indisposed Donald Lewis, Jr. With script in hand, she valiantly brought Egeon to life before returning to her two previously assigned characters, Luce the cook and Pinch, a voodoo conjurer, excellent as each.
As this Comedy played out, I looked forward to the ending when the separated pairs of siblings would be reunited. I had fond memories of SFT’s last Comedy in 2009; under Lorenzo Gonzalez’s direction, the final reconciliation scene conveyed the genuine emotion of such a momentous occasion with a stageful of folks exuding the warmth of hard-earned happiness, as lovely a moment as I’ve ever seen in Shakespeare.
This time when the big reveal occurred, everybody just seemed to slap each other on the back and then troop off the stage. And that was an error indeed.
More info about the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane and tickets at https://neworleansshakespeare.org/
[Unfortunately, due to the recent surge of COVID-19, as of July 31, all remaining performances of The Comedy of Errors have been canceled.]