For every “what if” you’ve asked in a dating relationship, “What if I just hadn’t been…?” or “What if he hadn’t said…?” Horizon Theatre’s CONSTELLATIONS has an answer. And another. And another.
Centered on the non-linear progression of a romantic couple, the play shows how a conversation can alter a relationship with just the change of a word or tone of voice. The two-person play presents many parallel universes (like LOST on steroids, but without the constant bewilderment).
What writer Nick Payne nails right off the bat is ease the audience into the repetitive nature of the piece without losing them to its unconventional timeline. Marianne strikes up a conversation with Roland using a seemingly inane remark about why it’s impossible to lick one’s elbow, and within a few words she comes to an awkward standstill. Then the lights change, the couple adjusts their positions on the stage, and she tries again. Small tweaks in word choice or personal circumstances indicate these parallel universes are full of similarities, but each holds entirely different outcomes. In one iteration, Roland already has a girlfriend. In another, Marianne seems to weird him out. And finally, they really click.
At first, the show is made up of these short, romantic comedy-esque clips which repeat themselves a few times and then skip forward or backwards in time to a new such scene. Were these flirty scenes the full extent of the show’s range, we may all walk away saying, “That was a fun little journey in first date lore,” and would likely talk about it for a few days, anticipating the forthcoming so-so productions at high school one-act competitions for the rest of eternity. But what saves CONSTELLATIONS from simply being a sweet rom-com is its transformation from fun possibilities in flirty exchanges to very serious what-ifs with lasting consequences. And this is what makes CONSTELLATIONS really stick with you.
A standout sequence occurs when Marianne (played by Bethany Irby) confesses to Roland (Enoch King)- without giving spoilers- some very distressing news. We see many iterations of this same scene in which sometimes he’s sad, sometimes he’s mad, in another she’s sad, or he takes the news graciously, etc. Then the exact same sequence happens yet again, this time with the two switching lines completely, and the same range of emotions yet again transpires. Overall, the slightly different nuances relentlessly utilized by Irby and King in vignette after vignette showcase a narrative specific enough to tell a good story, but vague enough to allow the audience to relate very specifically.
As complicated as it may sound, what Horizon does best is create a clear, heart-wrenching show provoking deep introspection, without for an instant causing the audience to step out of the story to say, “Wait, what…?” Lighting design (Mary Parker), scenic design (Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay), projections design (Bobby Johnston), and sound design (Rob Brooksher) all notably convey the transformation of worlds throughout the show, contributing heavily to its clarity.
Bethany Irby as Marianne expertly switches from sobbing in one scene to happy in the next, and all this critic could think was how does she ride this twisting emotional roller coaster night after night and not collapse from emotional exhaustion afterwards? The flirty sequences showcase some hilarious antics from Irby as she navigates awkward silences and verbal missteps. And yet, she grabs the audience by the heart and won’t let go just minutes later. Under the direction of Justin Anderson, both King and Irby brilliantly convey the entire spectrum of emotions, as they work as a pair to create a complex series of possible stories.
The romantic comedy-drama “Constellations” opens conventionally enough, with opposites attracting. Its two British characters are a humble and easygoing beekeeper named Roland, who lives in some remote outskirt of England, and the flamboyant Marianne, who analyzes data about quantum mechanics and theoretical physics at Cambridge University.
But Nick Payne’s play diverges quickly — and then, by design, repeatedly. Theirs is not so much a case of love at first sight as it is a case of love at fifth or sixth sight, too. In a theatrical bit of “cosmic relativity,” and with no “linear explanation,” Roland and Marianne proceed to live and re-live the pivotal moments from their relationship any number of times. In Payne’s alternate or parallel “multiverse,” the slightest differentiation in their actions or re-actions can alter the entire course of their affair.
In Horizon Theatre’s production, director Justin Anderson (who previously helmed “The City of Conversation” for the company) employs subtle contrasts in the lighting (by Mary Parker) and understated sound or music cues (by Rob Brooksher) to distinguish between the many reiterations of each scene. And there’s a nice celestial simplicity to the set (by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay) — two bare benches at center stage, encircled by strands of shimmering strings.
Still, however handsomely executed it is, and however briskly it moves along during much of its 80 or so minutes, the premise gradually begins to wear thin, becoming not just decidedly repetitious but periodically redundant as well. Before it’s all over (and over and over) and done with, melodramatic complications inevitably arise for the couple, at which point the show loses a lot of its fanciful, fantastical spark.
The splendid performances Anderson elicits from Enoch King and Bethany Irby make a whole universe of difference. Both of them thrive and relish in the opportunity to work outside of their so-called “comfort zones.” (Their British accents are technically fine, if somewhat distracting. You almost wish Anderson had opted to Americanize the roles instead.)
King is among the more dependable character actors in town (True Colors’ “Detroit ’67,” Actor’s Express’ “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet”), but it’s an undeniable pleasure to watch him here as a bona fide leading man, and such a romantic one at that. In his most shining moment, he articulates Roland’s “unfailing clarity of purpose” with remarkable warmth and depth.
Prior to leaving Atlanta for a five-year teaching job in India, Irby had been a fixture on the local scene, usually cast as musical-comedy ingénues. Recently returned (and last on view in Georgia Ensemble’s “Calendar Girls”), she has now matured into a resourceful dramatic actress, investing the otherwise intimidating Marianne with an appropriate “quiet elegance.”
In the grand metaphysical scheme of things, “Constellations” often seems to get lost in the cosmos. On a more elemental level, though, in portraying a sweet and possibly never-ending love story, Horizon’s co-stars ring true.
BRIEF:Daryl, 44, is an actor, playwright, lyricist/librettist and graphic designer who has been in Atlanta for six years. Her play Freed Spirits, about a geeky band of explorers seeking out spirits in Oakland Cemetery after a tornado, is in the midst of its world premiere at Horizon Theatre. (Freed Spirits tickets HERE or at 404.584.7450 through Oct. 30.)
NEXT: In December, her full-length comedy The Flower Room is part of the Threshold New Play Festival at Actor’s Express. It follows an uptight academic who loses her job teaching primitive sexual behavior, then explores a new career writing erotica. In May, her Split in Three, a drama about three sisters and segregation in the Mississippi Delta, circa 1969, plays Aurora Theatre’s mainstage.
ABOUT THE FLOWER ROOM: Its genesis is a July 2015 playwriting event — known as a “bake-off” — at Emory University. The idea, which comes from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, gives four writers 48 hours to create work that responds to a common source material. Each piece had to have four characters, follow certain other restrictions and respond to the 2010 nonfiction book Sex at Dawn, which deals with the evolution of monogamy in humans. Says Fazio: “Having those requirements meant I wrote a play about sex, which I never would sit down to do.”
HER JAM: Comedy. Plays that feature strong women.
ELSEWHERE: She has been produced off-Broadway and regionally at Florida Repertory. Her musicals have been awarded productions and development in New York by the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival of New Musicals, the New York Musical Theatre Festival and York Theatre Company.
THE ACTING THING: These days she’s onstage less than she’d like, but she’s content riding the hot hand and waiting for the right roles. “When you’re a freelancer, you kind of have to go where the work is. When you’re really busy having plays produced, it’s hard to audition. And vice versa. I consider it pretty crucial to my development to be doing all three things, including graphic design.”
FIRST MEMORY OF THEATER: At age 6, in a production of Rudyard Kipling stories that became a children’s musical about how elephants got long trunks. She was the crocodile. “I was seriously hooked.”
SOMETHING IN THE WATER? Daryl grew up in Starkville, Miss., the hometown of another Atlanta-based actor-playwright, Suehyla El-Attar. “I met her for first time when she was 14,” says Daryl, who was an upperclassman. “I was the teacher’s aide for the first drama class she took.”
EDUCATION: B.S. in theater from Northwestern University. M.F.A. in graphic design from the University of Memphis. She taught graphic design at Truman State University, a school of 6,200 on the plains of Missouri, and Coastal Carolina University, a school of about 10,000, outside Myrtle Beach, S.C. She burned out and decided to concentrate on theater.
WHY ATLANTA? “Chicago is too cold. New York is a little too crazy. So it was Atlanta, and it’s the best decision I ever made.” She made the move “very, very consciously to become part of the theater community.”
HER PLAN: Contact metro theaters as a professional graphic designer. Meet people, work for them and introduce herself as a playwright and actor over team. It worked like a dream.
LIVES NOW: In a 100-year-old house in Adair Park, just southwest of downtown, with her dogs August, a German shorthair pointer, and Sarah, a pit bill rescue (named for the playwright Sarah Ruhl), and cats Cori, Harriet and Possum. “I love that it’s integrated, that you never really know what’s going to happen and that it’s close to the city.”
IN THE WORKS: An untitled piece that dates back two summers to another gathering of playwrights at Emory. It’s about an alternate reality in the history of time, in which the entire medical care system was designed by women. They are the only ones who can put their hands on people.” She’s hoping to finish the first draft this month and submit it for a full workshop as part of Working Title Playwrights’ Ethel Woolson Lab. Watch for it.
Horizon Theatre commissions a brand new play, “Freed Spirits,”for its annual New South Play Festival. By Southern native Daryl Lisa Fazio, this delightful romp premieres just in time for Halloween.
Set in famous historic Oakland Cemetery, “Freed Spirits” focuses mainly on Susan, played by Horizon veteran Suehyla El-Attar. Susan is recently widowed and throws herself into being a knowledgeable docent at the cemetery.
We first meet Susan during an interview with a young documentarian, Keisha, played by Jimmica Collins. Keisha is intent on capturing a compelling story with drama and realism, and hangs on Susan’s every word. She mirrors the audience with her infectious eagerness to unravel the story.
Anxious and earnest, Susan possesses an eidetic memory that she can access like a database. At times, her impulse to recite information overtakes her like a self-soothing litany.
El-Attar’s unrelenting energy absolutely draws us in. Her quirks are endearing and we feel the immense care and affection she has for those around her, including the spirits laid to rest in the cemetery itself.
Susan volunteers with Dr. Netta Finch, played by Marguerite Hannah, a retired pathologist turned gardener. Netta is a suitable foil for Susan with her no-nonsense attitude and self-assured demeanor. Yet, she reveals a surprising side to her. Growing up in a funeral home, she developed abilities as a psychic medium. Leading a séance in the second act, she reveals a compelling depth to her humanity.
Hannah draws a down-to-earth portrait of a complex character, guarded and layered. As Netta chases the ghost of Mary, a slave, we feel her desperation. We want to dig deeper just as Mary digs up what appears to be her own remains.
Byron, played by Jonathan Horne, is a young romantic photographer, true to his namesake. Despite a heart condition, he soldiers on with the others, as he has through life without much of a connection to his parents. He is bright, eager to help, and doesn’t hesitate before jumping in headfirst.
Horne’s endearing nature makes Byron awkward and lovable, who provides some comic relief in his bumbling but determined nature.
Bryn Striepe steals the show as M.J. Bell, a self-appointed investigator dedicated to logic and deductive reasoning. As M.J. delivers her signature unsettling assessments of each character, she revels in her knowledge and skills. Her sense of superiority and rigor captures the imagination of Susan and Byron, who are nearly set in believing she is a superhero. All of this falls away once Susan learns the truth about her.
Striepe performs the truest homage to the inimitable Sherlock Holmes. Her aloofness, intensity, and eccentricity are practically Whovian.
Other characters of “Freed Spirits” share traits with Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in a fitting tribute to the mystery genre. Like Holmes, Susan and MJ struggle with nicotine use. Netta and Byron have a shared interest in the spirit communication, as Doyle developed later in life.
An encounter with the apparition of rebel soldier McKinley Etheridge, played by Spencer Kolbe Miller, draws the gang into a richly textured ghost hunt with as many twists and turns as Oakland’s winding brick paths. As we move deeper into the narrative, the characters explore their connections with each other and reveal to us more about themselves.
More than just a mystery-comedy, the production has some compelling takeaways. People have layers. Fully embrace your weirdness. The process of getting to know someone is like unearthing a grave or a buried treasure.
“Freed Spirits” is an entertaining production with a beautifully constructed set with amazing attention to detail and lighting. Sure to appeal to wider audiences, this unique Atlanta production is perfect for the upcoming spooky season.
“Freed Spirits” runs through Oct. 30 at Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave NE in Atlanta. For tickets or information, call 404-584-7450 or visit horizontheatre.com
When the levees break in New Orleans, a doctor ventures into the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina to find his beloved wife. What he discovers underwater is a club called the Gumbo Pot—evidence that the vibrant spirit of the Crescent City can never be washed away.
Almost 700 miles away in Titusville, Fla., a veteran returns home covered in burns after her latest tour of duty, only to find that her hometown has changed almost as much as she has.
In Yazoo City, Miss., sisters Nola and Nell are living on the outskirts of town during the last days of school desegregation. Then one day a woman shows up from Chicago claiming to be their sister. There’s just one problem: They’re white and she’s black.
These stories are not born of the Spanish-moss-and-sweet-tea-on-the-front-porch South of Tennessee Williams, or the sepia-toned nostalgia of Horton Foote. They are all from plays by a new generation of Southern-raised female writers who are telling stories of today’s South and infusing their personal journeys as Southern artists into their work. As such they may prove a powerful antidote to prevailing attitudes about the region, which, if you take the last 10 years of American Theatre’s Top 10 most-produced plays list as a guide, was represented exclusively by To Kill a Mockingbird, The Whipping Man, The Glass Menagerie, and The Mountaintop.
Meanwhile, closer to home, these local artists are taking that old national perception out of the rocking chair, off the plantation, and into the new millennium. That’s not to say they’re overlooking the area’s dark racial history in their work. But they are giving contemporary social context to the diversity and complications of today’s South.
“One of the greatest misconceptions in the theatre about the South is that we’re all living in a Tennessee Williams play,” said playwright Daryl Lisa Fazio. “Then there’s the accent, where you’ll see characters talk like they’re in a Tennessee Williams play but they’re in the Delta. Then again, what are people given about the South in the media?”
Fazio grew up in Starkville, Miss., and is currently based in Atlanta. While she originally dreamt of being an actor after studying theatre at Northwestern University, she found her way to playwriting while teaching graphic design at Truman State University. There she acted in a play called Parallel Lives; she relished the experience, yet when she looked for more roles for strong Southern women, she realized there weren’t many. As she started to get to know area theatres by freelancing for them as a graphic designer (her current clients include Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre Company and Actor’s Express, as well as Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers), she began to write plays with those missing roles.
“I’m not college-educated as a writer,” Fazio admitted. “I was learning from every play I read who I wanted to be and what I wanted to say. I realized I wanted to write roles for women. I also realized that there were a lot of things about race that I didn’t understand.”
Race and womanhood are central themes in her play Split in Three, about sisters who find their Mississippi town changing due to school integration. The show premiered at Florida Rep last year and will be produced at Atlanta’s Aurora Theatre next May. And her new play Freed Spirits, set in Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery, is playing at Horizon Theatre Sept. 23-Oct. 30.
Fazio says that her stint at Northwestern reshaped her views, in particular on racism. “When you’re around race every day you think you’re not racist, because you’re so heavily Baptist,” she suggested. Studying just outside of Chicago, also a deeply segregated city but with different attitudes about it, opened her eyes. “You realize you’re all these things you didn’t know. I was part of a very small, conservative world growing up, and when I left for college in the big city, that all changed. There was more than one way to do everything, including seeing other races.”
Race and history are also significant influences in the work of another Atlanta-based playwright, Gabrielle Fulton. Her grandfather’s tales about his mother picking 100 pounds of cotton a day, mixed with the clandestine stories of slave rebellions in the South, became the basis for her play Uprising. The piece had a rolling world premiere at Horizon Theatre in Atlanta and Alexandria, Va.’s MetroStage last year.
“There was a pride he had in her, and there isn’t a lot of pride associated with our ancestors who picked cotton,” recalled Fulton, who also studied at Northwestern. “I wanted to honor that strength and work ethic and provide a story to make these people real instead of something you just read about in history books.”
In the play, a woman named Sal who lives in a community of freed black people in Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., meets a man who is the lone survivor of John Brown’s raid; together they must figure out what freedom means to them.
“Uprising is a play set before the Civil War told from the perspective of African Americans, not white people, which is a thing that has been missing,” Fulton said of the play, excerpts of which were also presented during an event at Raleigh, N.C.’s Mordecai Plantation, “Reclamation: Plays by Female Voices of Color.”
Two of her other plays, The Seed Planter (about a Civil Rights activist whose daughter resents her choice to prioritize progress over parenting), and Passing Black (a commission from Clark Atlanta University that takes place during its first African-American art annual in 1942, at which a woman who appears to be white submits a piece), are also told from the perspectives of black women. This point of view is not always welcome; indeed, before Uprising was staged last summer, many artistic directors told Fulton that the play would never be produced. Some seemed to think that a play written from a black woman’s perspective would have limited the play’s audience appeal. Fulton rejects the notion.
“It’s a challenge being an African-American female playwright in the South,” she admitted. “You really have to make a case for why your story is worthy. Everything is extremely hard, but I’m going to keep doing it.”
Diversity and representation onstage are also very important to Leah Nanako Winkler, who is half Japanese and half white. She wrote her play Kentucky as an ode to the place where she grew up, Lexington. In the play, 30-year-old Hiro, who has defected to New York City, comes back home when her younger sister, a born-again Christian, gets engaged. Hiro thinks she is going back home to save her sister from a life of being barefoot and pregnant, but both must learn to accept the different people they have become. The play is not autobiographical, but is inspired by her life—Winkler’s real-life sister is a born-again Christian; the characters are, like her, mixed-race; and she has lived in New York for a decade.
“I don’t really see a lot of plays about the South, but when I do it’s about poor people who are white,” Winkler said. She points out that Lexington has a sizable Japanese population we don’t hear about much in the news, let alone see onstage. “I went to Japanese school. I went to a diverse high school. My mom was a piano teacher. There were poor people, but there was also horse country.”
Winkler is working on her MFA in playwriting at Brooklyn College, and was one of the Youngblood playwrights at NYC’s Ensemble Studio Theatre, where Kentucky premiered in April. It will be produced at East West Players in Los Angeles, Nov. 10-Dec. 11.
“A lot of people don’t even know that there’s theatre in Kentucky,” Winkler pointed out, but it was high school theatre that inspired her to become an artist. “I got an amazing education in a place where not a lot of people think people are educated.”
Christina Quintana, who has Cuban roots, shares Winkler’s sentiment about her Southern theatre education; she credits the performing-arts high school New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and her time as an intern at Southern Rep in that city, with sparking her interest in theatre. Her musical Gumbo, which was workshopped at the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival in central New York, is set during Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans during her senior year of high school.
The play approaches the subject via the classic story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Quintana admits that for years she avoided writing about the storm, as it was all anyone ever talked about when they referred to New Orleans. But then she met composer Brett Macias at Columbia University, and the story came to her in a dream; it seemed serendipitous.
“History tells us where we come from, and I always want to be in conversation with the people who paved the way for us,” said Quintana, who is also a Youngblood playwright at EST. “As an early playwright, I felt like I needed to avoid the classics and that new plays were the only way. Suddenly I realized that all great stories are somehow rooted in one another, and there are so many wonders and tricks of the trade to be gained from the classics.”
NOLA also serves as the backdrop for her play Scissoring, which was a finalist for the Alliance Theatre’s Kendeda Award in 2014, which is about a teacher at a Catholic school forced to choose between her career and the life she’s built with her longtime girlfriend.
“I believe there’s a lot of the extraordinary in our everyday lives, if only we look for it,” Quintana said, “and theatre gives us the opportunity to explore this head on.”
Lindsey Ferrentino’s roots in Merritt Island, Fla., along with her interest in what happens to veterans when they return home from war, inspired Ugly Lies the Bone, which is running at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre Sept. 16-Oct. 9. It had its world premiere at Roundabout Theatre Company in NYC, and Ferrentino is currently adapting it for a potential television series. The play follows a veteran who returns to her Floridian hometown just as the space shuttle program is closing. The work hits very close to home for Ferrentino.
“I grew up under a banner that said, ‘Welcome to Merritt Island—where dreams are launched,’” she said. “I went away to college around the same time as NASA’s layoffs and the space shuttle program shutting down, and came home to an area whose landscape drastically changed, both physically and economically. I began to notice a parallel between the town looking for a way to start over and soldiers looking for the same thing, in an area that had little opportunity to offer them.”
Scenes in Ugly alternate between Jess’s hometown and a virtual-reality therapy being used to treat veterans in perpetual pain. Ferrentino says she would like audiences to walk away with more empathy for veterans, and to be in a communal space where they have no choice but to witness the physical, personal, and domestic cost of fighting foreign wars. She also aims to show off her South, noting that there is a difference between Floridians and Southerners.
“I don’t think of my area as a place where debutante balls or Southern gentility is really a thing,” said the playwright, who recently won the prestigious Kesselring Prize for Ugly Lies the Bone. “My South—or a version of it, based on my hometown—is faster, brighter, and gloriously tackier. There are cruise ships and rocket launches and Mickey Mouse and the Fountain of Youth.”
For these young female playwrights, in other words, the South is a microcosm for exploring bigger social issues: race, class, war. At the same time, they are updating and reshaping the Southern narrative onstage, writing from viewpoints that are rarely seen. Bypassing the columns and gazebos of the past, they are paving a way for more daring works by artists south of the Mason-Dixon Line to take the national spotlight.
“The South has a very dark history, but also a rich one,” said Quintana. “It’s important that we acknowledge both of these things, and it’s important that we tell the full story. The South is full of so many stories, voices, and fantastic figures, past and present. There are vibrant companies and theatre artists across the South who are pouring themselves into creating quality theatre. This must be known and celebrated!”
Kelundra Smith is an arts journalist based in Atlanta.
A version of this story appears in the October 2016 issue of American Theatre.
Broadway World Atlanta: ‘da Kink in My Hair Uplifts Atlanta
by Courtnee Miles July 18,2015
As I’m conditioning my hair and applying every essential oil known to man on my scalp, I am reflecting on the production I saw yesterday evening. I had the pleasure of seeing ‘da Kink in My Hair at the Horizon Theatre in Atlanta. The play was nothing short of amazing. It was personal to me because as an African-American millennial woman, it reminded me of the joys, as well as the struggles, of myself, my mother, my mother’s mother, and even my mother’s mother’s mother (I hope you’re following me). This amazing musical captivated me with songs and rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean, while reminding me of where I come from.
Written by Trey Anthony, this production tells the story of women from all walks of life with one common goal- to be beautiful. West Indian stylist, Novelette, reassures the other characters that their beauty is much deeper than just a hair style. She tells them that it comes from within and that learning and accepting their own truths are the keys to happiness and internal peace. Thank you, Ms. Novelette, for inspiring me to embrace ‘da kink in my hair.
‘da Kink in My Hair is showing until August 28. For tickets and other inquires, you may contact the Horizon Theatre at (404) 584-7450.
Horizon Theatre’s current “The City of Conversation,” by Anthony Giardina, directed by Justin Anderson, running through June 26, is a delicious piece of theatre that you must not miss.
It’s set near Washington D.C., Georgetown, where deals are made and fates are sealed at night in the comfortable salons of an elite group of powerful Washington hostesses.
So you thought that important political decisions were made solely in the halls of Congress or the White House? Oh, grow up, as the late Joan Rivers would say.
I remember the late Martha Mitchell’s (wife of Attorney General John Mitchell) face on the cover of Time Magazine; the caption was “The Wives of Washington.” You may be too young to recall the antics of Ms. Mitchell, who became famous for her late night phone calls to political power players or the press, especially during the time of Watergate. But the Georgetown power demimonde, if you will, exists, although Giardina’s play makes it clear that its influence has lessened, especially in this (2016) ferocious political year.
Potomac Fever, the lust and addiction to power that proximity to Washington can engender, is on ample display in “The City of Conversation.”
No one plays the game better than Hester Ferris (Tess Malis Kincaid), whom we first meet in the waning days of the Carter Administration, 1979. At a soirée in her elegant parlor she is helping pave the way for “a little Judiciary Committee thing” by entertaining Republican Senator Mallonee (Allan Edwards) and his wife, Carolyn (Deborah Bowman), both of whom stylishly make the most of their relatively brief time onstage.
Hester’s composure is somewhat challenged by the sudden arrival of her handsome son, Colin (Justin Walker) and his fiancée, Anna (Rachel Garner). Both have just finished their studies at the London School of Economics. Hester is not thrilled by her son’s long hair, nor by Anna’s tall boots; although staunchly Democratic herself, Hester, as stated, is plying the conservative Republican senator. She’s creating an entire milieu for her evening’s agenda, and as someone once said, these things must be done delicately.
Hester and Anna’s instant rapport is roughly that of a cobra and a mongoose. Hester can spot attempted flattery or manipulation a mile away, and Anna’s vaulting ambition is instantly apparent to Hester. She even suggests to Anna that she’s seen that movie, and it’s called “All About Eve.” Yet Anna’s no lightweight; she plays hardball, but then, so does Hester, and with a lot more experience. Both women are out of Colin’s league in intellect and cunning, yet he’s no dunce. He simply lacks their drive and fascination with power. Oh yes, Anna is Republican and has swayed Colin. Hester fumes.
Hester’s mainstay and Rock of Gibraltar is her sister, Jean (Carolyn Cook); her boyfriend is the senator from Virginia, Chandler, played with practiced poise by Chris Kayser.
Pretty soon Anna and Colin have a little boy named Ethan (Vinny Montague, in a feisty performance). Hester adores him, and when she and Anna bring out the big guns for serious battle over possible Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, there is full-out warfare; and Anna is not afraid to use Ethan as a bargaining chip. But she underestimates Hester’s total determination.
Playwright Giardina’s dialogue snaps and crackles, and this A list cast makes the most of it. The show is a feast for those who love fine acting. Carolyn Cook and Chris Kayser show why they are Atlanta acting legends: There’s not a false move or wasted glance or gesture from either of them. Rachel Garner more than rises to the occasion as she goes toe to toe with Ms. Kincaid in heated, tense scenes; it’s a breakthrough performance for Ms. Garner.
I do think that the essence of anger often comes out very quietly; yes, shouting must occur at times, but I think it must be used judiciously. There’s no extra charge to the director or cast for that caveat.
Speaking of Mr. Anderson, his direction is right on the money: the fluid blocking, the insightful handling of scenes, crescendos, and subtle shifts in the momentum and emotional atmosphere. A fine director is supposed to make these things look easy, and he does.
More praise for the actors: Justin Walker’s Colin is quite touching: Colin is a young man who is well-intentioned but all too aware of his limitations, and somehow a subtle undercurrent of sadness emanates from him; very impressive work from Mr. Walker.
It falls to Joshua D. Mitchell to lighten the mood a bit in the play’s final scenes, and he does.
Finally, there is Tess Malis Kincaid. She is flawless: All her formidable gifts—her fierce intelligence, her power, concentration, and subtlety—are on glorious display here. She hasn’t won three Suzi Bass Awards for Best Actress for nothing. Her Hester now ranks in my book with her Barbara in Alliance Theatre’s “August: Osage County,” a towering performance.
Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay have created a beautiful set for what is hands-down the best play on the boards in Atlanta. Don’t miss it.
Critics and audiences couldn’t get enough of The Toxic Avenger, and so we’re bringing it back! Horizon’s musical comedy sensation The Toxic Avenger will be outside in the ATL this summer when it hits Piedmont Park, June 9th through the 12th– and thousands of FREE tickets will be available to the public beginning May 12. Get ready to experience an Atlanta hit in the center of our city!
Last summer, Horizon’s sold-out musical Avenue Q was a rollicking fun party in the Park, playing to thousands who came to picnic, play and watch fantastic professional musical theatre in Piedmont Park. “Avenue Q was so amazing and special last summer – audiences of all ages and types came together for a truly unique Atlanta experience. There is just nothing else like it – live performance under the stars. And it’s free!” says Lisa Adler, Horizon’s Co-Artistic/Producing Director. “The Toxic Avenger was another runaway hit for Horizon in our Little Five Points home this past winter. It’s just so much fun – upbeat, smart and silly at the same time with a hugely energetic and talented cast, fantastic rock music and a live band. Everyone leaves smiling every night, so it is the perfect show to bring together Atlantans in the heart of our city under the sky and treetops this summer.”
Full of off-beat humor and an amazing score, The Toxic Avenger is the Winner of the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical and is guaranteed to have the audience laughing on the green. “Infectious fun to watch….Just enjoy,” raved the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. ArtsATL noted it was, “most fun to be had in local theatre,” and Atlanta InTown promised, “you’ll have tons of fun.” It’s a laugh-out-loud rock musical with an unlikely hero, the mild-mannered scientist, Melvin Ferd the Third, whose crusade to stop the corrupt mayor gets him dumped in toxic waste.From the smoke emerges our green, gooey superhero with mega-strength – The Toxic Avenger, or Toxie for short. He’s here to save his home town from toxic waste, win the love of the beautiful blind librarian, stop global warming and bring a brand new day of clean air and harmony to New Jersey and the world. This tour de force for five powerhouse actor/singers playing over 30 roles keeps the action spinning as the music rocks the park.
Thanks to a major grant from The Charles Loridans Foundation, a supporting grant from the Mark and Evelyn Trammell Foundation and a partnership with the Piedmont Park Conservancy, Horizon continues for the second year the tradition begun by Georgia Shakespeare of bringing free professional theatre to Piedmont Park this summer, giving new audiences a chance to experience Horizon. “Our mission is to connect people, inspire hope and promote positive change through the stories of our times – and this gives us the chance to do that on a larger scale and with great joy.” said Adler. “There has been a huge influx of new residents intown, and this is the perfect show to introduce them to the amazing work they will find at Horizon and our other professional Atlanta theatres and the talented theatre artists who are thriving here.”
Park performances will be Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, June 9-12 at 7:30 PM, and audiences will provide their own blanket or low beach chair. Grounds open for picnicking at 6 PM. Free and $15 Reserved Seating Section Tickets are available ONLINE ONLY beginning May 12. General admission tickets will be available for free for each performance, but must be reserved online in advance. Reserved Seating section tickets are $15 (plus tax and small service charge) and get you in the reserved seating area up close to the stage. Arrive at your leisure and walk past the crowds to come right down front. Limited Table Seating Tickets close to the stage are $35. Tickets are available online only at www.horizontheatre.com. Audiences will bring their print-at-home or mobile tickets and will need to bring their own low chairs (30” back height maximum, 6” seat height maximum) or blankets for seating. Anyone bringing a taller chair will be directed to the rear to allow good sightlines for all. Food and non-alcoholic beverages may be brought in for picnics – although no glass is allowed. No firearms allowed. Food trucks will provide dinner options for purchase and wine, beer, water and soft drinks will be available for sale onsite. The stage is in the Promenade green space at the North end of the Park, conveniently located near the Park/Botanical Gardens Sage parking garage and The Prado entrance to the Park.
Theater review: Topical talk highlights Horizon’s ‘City of Conversation’
by Bert Osborne
May 23, 2016
Despite all the intelligent, articulate and frequently witty political banter that fuels “The City of Conversation,” the most inspired and keenly observed moment in director Justin Anderson’s Horizon Theatre production owes more to sheer happenstance than deliberate design.
Anthony Giardina’s comedy-drama spans 30 years (1979-2009), principally involving a liberal Washington, D.C., socialite whose son marries an ambitious conservative activist. On the stately townhome set of designers extraordinaire Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay, the opening scene takes place at the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency; the closing sequence is set at the start of Barack Obama’s first term; and, in between, the play’s second segment unfolds in 1987, when Ronald Reagan nominates Robert Bork for the Supreme Court.
Wait for it: When Anna, the daughter-in-law, suddenly realizes that she champions the appointment no more staunchly than Hester, her mother-in-law, opposes it, she proclaims, “We’re not going to lose on this … I mean, a president gets to pick his Supreme Court, doesn’t he?” (If you don’t know who Merrick Garland is, the serendipitous irony will be lost on you, but Horizon’s with-it opening-night audience reacted to the line with the most enthusiastic and spontaneous response in the whole show.)
There’s a decidedly sophisticated spark to the script and its fictional characters — at least as long as they’re talking politics, dropping real names like “Teddy” Kennedy or “Ollie” North and sharing anecdotes about them, or otherwise debating topical current events about racial progress and socioeconomic agendas.
“The City of Conversation” isn’t exactly fair and balanced, though. Both women can be equally headstrong or occasionally strident, but Giardina finally gives Anna a much harder time for her ulterior motives as a wife and mother, while essentially giving Hester a pass for keeping longtime companionship with a married man. Tess Malis Kincaid brings her usual flair to Hester, and co-star Rachel Garner holds her own serviceably as Anna.
Director Anderson casts even the smaller, more thankless supporting parts with qualified (possibly overqualified) heavy-hitters: Chris Kayser as that adulterous lover; Carolyn Cook as Hester’s subservient sister (whose back story is vaguely addressed and then ignored); Allan Edwards and Deborah Bowman as a smarmy Southern senator and his oblivious wife.
Elsewhere, in the meatier roles of Hester’s son, Colin, and later her grown-up grandson, Ethan, Justin Walker underwhelms — twice. So does Joshua D. Mitchell as the latter character’s gay boyfriend. And Vinny Montague as a younger version of the grandson.
Giardina’s comedy is squarely on target in depicting the “charmingly quaint rituals” of bipartisan dinner parties or in questioning the “decline of liberalism” and “legislatively coerced good behavior.” It’s as a drama that the play falters, reduced to a family soap opera that pits Hester against Anna for the love and admiration of Colin, and then for influence and control over Ethan.
Call it an “unwieldy” if hardly “necessary” union, but talk about striking a compromise …
“The City of Conversation”
Through June 26. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 3 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays (no matinee on June 4); 5 p.m. Sundays. $25-$35. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. (in Little Five Points), Atlanta. 404-584-7450, www.horizontheatre.com.
Bottom line: More effective as political commentary than as domestic melodrama.