The multi-tasking theater

Burning Coal quarters company in search of company quarters; Carlota Santana celebrates 20 years of flamenco

| May 28, 2003
Serena Ebhardt and David zum Brunnen in  
    Travesties
Serena Ebhardt and David zum Brunnen in Travesties
- Burning Coal Theater Company
CHARLESTON, S.C.--Artistic director Jerome Davis leans over his seat in Physicians' Auditorium to gently correct an illusion of mine, moments before Burning Coal Theater's production of Travesties opens at Piccolo Spoleto.

I'd just asked him about producing two major shows simultaneously, remounting the chewiest show of the fall as the company's premiere at the prestigious international festival, while readying a production of Crumbs from the Table of Joy for its opening Thursday night at Raleigh's BTI Center.

Two shows, two states. Neither the easiest to pull off. A challenge, right?

"But it wasn't two," Davis replies. "Actually, it was four."

In addition to both shows above, Davis had also recently finished directing the premiere of Alice Neel for New World Stage and overseeing a May 11 staged reading of Face Value for Burning Coal's "High Noon at the Rialto" series.

"There were times I didn't know what city I needed to be in," he recalls. "But at the same time, when you're doing that much, it feels like you're on the right track. If you're a producer, that's what you ought to be doing."

It's an accomplishment all the more remarkable for a theater company without a place to call its own. For Burning Coal owns none of the six venues its artists have worked in over the past month: rehearsing Travesties and Crumbs at the North Carolina Theater's rehearsal studios on Capital Boulevard, staging Alice Neel at Carrboro's Artscenter, following the Face Value reading at the Rialto. All of these, of course, before restaging Travesties at Sandhills Theater in Southern Pines, and opening Crumbs at Raleigh's Kennedy Theater.

And of course, don't forget Spoleto.

But perhaps the big question is this: If a homeless theater company can do all that, what might it do if it actually had its own space?

For the Coals these days, the question's not merely rhetorical. Along with the above, the group has been making the rounds at City Hall and the State Legislature, asking both to help support renovating the Murphey School auditorium on Person Street into a 200-seat black box theater--the Coal's first permanent home.

The company makes its formal pitch to the Raleigh City Council on June 3. For those with opinions on the matter, the meeting in the council's chambers at 222 W. Hargett St. begins at 6:30 p.m.

The sun was slowly setting over Marion Square as I compared notes with a colleague from the Charleston City Paper after a full night and day of theater. While savoring the last few rays of vitamin K at a memorable rooftop bistro called The Terrace, we ran down the docket over iced tea, four flights over Calhoun Street.

I'd caught a midday showing of a quasi-topical musical comedy review with the appetizing title Six Women with Brain Death (or Expiring Minds Want to Know). Headlines from weekly speculative fiction magazines like the National Enquirer provide the, um, inspiration for a series of sketchy sketches that revisit the usual suspects of modern culture but find little new to say about them. Mark Houston's songs--and a script by a committee of eight--have moments of feminist flash and wit, but still nowhere near enough to fill the show's 95 minutes. The bright spot? The pitch-perfect, classically trained singers, who gave an otherwise off-key show more than a modicum of class.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: Seattle's Theatre Simple, and their production of Jeffery Hatcher's Three Viewings at Theater 220. Though this triptych of dramatic monologues set in a small-town funeral parlor at first seems to cash in on the mortuary chic of Six Feet Under, Hatcher's 1995 script actually predates the HBO hit series.

Under Rachel Katz Carey's discerning direction, Evan Parry gives a touching performance as Emil, a shy but still engaging funeral home director of a certain age, in the opening, "Tell Tale." He searches for the courage to confess his love to his heartthrob, a small-town real estate agent, devising increasingly elaborate ways to finally have her catch him saying the three words, "I love you," to something other than her turned back. Emil's emotions run a finely nuanced gauntlet through this poignant monologue, from hope, to terror, to petulance and back to hope again. Given Parry's performance, we fairly ache for Emil as he edges ever closer to confessing his true love, ever closer, losing time, and opportunity ...

Llysa Holland's brassy turn as Mac, "The Thief of Tears," provides welcome contrast and comic relief--at least at first. Mac opens by bragging that she's been stealing the jewels off corpses for years--an icebreaker that leaves her some explaining to do. Nothing about this character is simple, and neither is Holland's portrait of a defiant woman who tells her tale and ultimately dares us to judge her. Hatcher's script turns here several times, and playgoers should be advised: Appearances to the contrary, there is nothing remotely approaching a throwaway line anywhere in this act.

Finally, Shellie Shulkin convinces as Virginia, a widow who quickly learns a lot about her departed husband, in the closing "Thirteen Things About Ed Carpolotti." As Virginia tries to untangle Ed's shady deals, Shulkin basically embodies sweet little old ladydom, bewildered by postmodern offspring, anonymous, vaguely threatening notes and a "businessman" who insists on asking if she's wearing a recording device.

Strong direction, strong acting, strong script--good theater, up close. Almost worth the drive to Charleston by itself.

Interesting was the experimental four-person Macbeth from Tennessee's Clarence Brown Theatre. You read correctly: two women and two men inhabit over a dozen roles in this 90-minute version. Though the quartet sticks to Shakespeare's text, the frame around it is decidedly contemporary. The two weird sisters--down from three--seem taken from the set of Sex and the City, while Macbeth and Banquo first manifest as executives in power suits and ties. The sisters hail both--in the elevator of a downtown high-rise office building where they all work.

So far, so imaginative. The discovery of the murdered king at Macbeth's castle is mediated by a bombastic, Geraldoesque fool in a scene strictly played for laughs. As they say, "Once, it's funny." But too many scenes take place during a fashion photo shoot. And when Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost on a talkshow set, what ultimately startles us is that Lady Macbeth seems to be channeling Hillary Clinton's 60 Minutes appearance after Bill's infidelities.

Any question we might have had about possibly current political targets in this show evaporate when an actor who bears a passing resemblance to George W. wordlessly wraps himself in an American flag during a music break. So much for subtlety.

Though they occasionally shock, director Blake Robison's political targets don't add up to much. The tiresome media bludgeoning here doesn't ultimately lend much new insight. Though the production values are slick and the pop culture references are suitably hip, too many of the play's monologues read like exercises for an acting class, not integrated scenes in a coherent play.

The dubious main achievement of this Macbeth is that it's a slightly more serious take than the clowns at the Reduced Shakespeare Company might have done in the same time.

I doubt these denizens of Legitimate Theatre would take that as much of a compliment. No problem: It's not intended as one.

Reseeing Travesties after a half-year's time gives no shortage of second thoughts about the production. The Spoleto version is considerably tighter than the initial run in Raleigh, shoehorned with surprisingly little violence into a stage considerably smaller than at BTI Kennedy.

But the main thing that strikes me is the impossibility of it all--a point which applies to Tom Stoppard's script in particular. This gifted troupe of actors expends kilocalories on that stage, bailing a seemingly endless geyser of words out of Stoppard's intriguing, but still leaky, boat of a plot. And yet they make it look, on the whole, so effortless as to amaze.

The verbal velocity required to keep things afloat is not without casualty, on this second viewing. Terry Milner seems given less time for Tristan Tzara's points about the absurdity of love with a similarly abbreviated Sean Brosnahan as Gwendolyn. The musical exchange between Gwendolyn and Serena Ebhardt's Marxist librarian dominatrix, Cecily entertains, even as the point of it vanishes in the slipstream. On the other hand, the closing scene between Ebhardt and David zum Brunnen as Henry Carr, the minor British functionary who just possibly once knew Tzara, Lenin and Joyce, shines with a poignancy and clarity I don't recall the first one having.

Even if I don't entirely buy zum Brunnen's transitions from a doddering old Carr to a younger one, his heroics with Stoppard's impenetrable script are duly noted. As its central character, narrator and host, he's in nearly every scene: If anyone else gets a break on floatation duty, zum Brunnen clearly never does. Of all efforts, his most likely is the bravest. Thanks to it, Travesties comes into Port Charleston still above water.

"In 1983, if you wanted a real pair of flamenco shoes, you had to draw your foot on a piece of paper," impresario Carlota Santana recalls. "You sent it over to Madrid in an envelope, hoping it would get there, and if you were lucky, three months later you'd get a pair of shoes."

A number of things have changed since the year Santana and choreographer Roberto Lorca started Flamenco Vivo with three dancers and a $3,000 choreographer's grant from the NEA. This week the company celebrates its 20th anniversary with a concert at Durham's Carolina Theatre. After their performance here, Flamenco Vivo returns to the Joyce Theater in New York for a week of shows, beginning June 10.

"We were just trying to do something bigger with Spanish dance," she recalls. "Instead of just doing a concert of classical dance, we wanted something more theatrical." In recent years, regional audiences have snapped up tickets to see the company's dance theater works, including Mano a Mano and Bailaor/Bailaora.

This year's concert provides a retrospective, contrasting the company's early choreography from 1983-1986 with a new work by Antonio Hidalgo. The highlight of the first act is Longo's Luz y Sombra (Light and Shadow).

"Roberto choreographed it after he'd been diagnosed with AIDS," Santana remembers, "and I think it was his way of coming to terms with his own death." The work, a duet between a man and a woman, recasts La Petenera, a mythical seductress from folklore, as the Angel of Death. Santana played the role herself, originally, with the choreographer during the last part of his life. "The male fights with the woman. He loves her, but she frightens him," Santana notes. "To do the role I had to see her as an enabler, one who helps the character die."

Bailes de Ida y Vuelta, Hidalgo's new work, traces the recent Latin American influences. Music and vivid movement celebrates the colorful Argentinian, Cuban and Venezuelan street cultures. "There's this Latin sensuality that the women are projecting," Santana says. "Traditionally, flamenco women have a formal, a held back sensuality, but here it's very flirtatious. You can see it in the dance, it's more relaxed."

"When we rehearse, everyone's smiling and having a good time--which you don't always see in flamenco. The audience has to love it, I think. It's infectious."

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For more information on Spoleto, go to www.spoletousa.org or www.piccolospoleto.org.

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