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ARTSATL Review: ‘Comet’ presents sexy parts of Tolstoy in constellation of musical talent

Anatole (Jordan Patrick) and Natasha (Alexandria Joy) have great chemistry in “Great Comet” (Photos courtesy of Horizon Theatre)

Review: ‘Comet’ presents sexy parts of Tolstoy in constellation of musical talent


“Leo Tolstoy: He’s a fizzy, dizzy good time!” That’s what one imagines a review of the verbose Russian author’s War and Peace might have read if critics of the late 19th century had only had Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 — the electropop musical adaptation of just 70 pages of Tolstoy’s sweeping tome — to go from.

This effervescent, absorbing and musically versatile delight, playing at Horizon Theatre through November 26, cleverly gives us the sexier, more scandalous portion of Tolstoy’s 1867 epic quilt of narratives and philosophical musings set during the Napoleonic Wars.

Under the dexterous direction of Heidi McKerley and in the hands of a go-for-broke cast, it’s a production that, simply put, demonstrates what live theater at its best can do.

With a two-and-a-half-hour run time that somehow flies by faster than a comet’s tail, the story line follows a sweet but naïve young woman named Natasha (Alexandria Joy), who’s engaged to Andrey (Hayden Rowe, who also plays violin), the son of a prince who’s serving as a soldier in the far-off war.

Things soon go awry for Natasha and the soap opera-like soup of supporting characters swirling around their Moscow social scene. And why else? In the parlance of our times: A f***boi. Natasha meets and instantly falls for the magnetic charlatan Anatole (Jordan Patrick), setting off a Rube Goldberg of bad choices that ends, in true Russian fashion, in ruin and exile.

Unhappily married Pierre (Daniel Burns) is friends with Andrey, Natasha’s fiancee, in “Great Comet.”

Finally, just to round out the rest of the titular characters, there’s also wealthy, unhappily married Pierre (Daniel Burns), the shy and frequently melancholy friend of Andrey’s, who was played by Josh Groban in the play’s Tony-winning Broadway iteration that ran in 2016 and 2017.

That’s a pared-down, very Wikipedia-entry-level description of what transpires — which leads me to one of the magic tricks of the show, which is how the excessive intricacies of the plot are acknowledged outright in the lyrics of the songs (It’s more like an opera in that virtually every line is sung.).

The very first number, appropriately titled “Prologue,” sets the tongue-in-cheek tone that pervades the evening, beginning somberly and slowly: “There’s a war going on / out there somewhere / and Andrey isn’t here.”

And then the ensemble pauses a beat, and the whole score shifts as they launch into a jaunty, vaudeville-like tune that directly addresses the audience and makes a Meta Meal out of our plight.

“And this is all in your program. You are at the opera. Gonna have to study up a little bit if you wanna keep with the plot,” the entire cast sings, smiles on their faces, swaying back and forth. “Cause it’s a complicated Russian novel. Everyone’s got nine different names. So look it up in your program; we’d appreciate it; thanks a lot. Da da da, da da da.”

The musical was first produced in 2012, then spent four years or so making the rounds at different theaters, including stagings in Quito, Ecuador, and in Massachusetts. After its celebrated run on Broadway, it was sadly beaten out for the Tony for Best Musical by Dear Evan Hansen, but hey, time will tell which one holds up better. (Spoiler: It’s this one.)

Anatole’s scheming sister Helene (Janine Ayn) serves up “Real Housewives” energy.

Creator Dave Malloy, who crafted the book, music and lyrics of the show, is no stranger to adapting literary giants. In 2019, he crafted a musical from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. And he also wrote the music and lyrics for a new musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which opens in London this month. Keep an eye on this kid — he’s going places!

While Malloy’s writing is strong, this show is a heavy lift; its success relies on a strong cast and musical team. Thankfully, at Horizon, the stage is a crowded constellation of Atlanta musical theater talent who invite you in to bask in the glow of their artistry all the way through their final bow.

This is particularly true of Joy, a fresh but already familiar face who has appeared on stages across Metro Atlanta. Natasha finally grants Joy a role worthy of her gifts as a performer and, especially, as a vocalist. In the solo “No One Else,” for instance, she’s tasked with climbing around the entire set as she delivers a soaring piece on longing, envisioning what life might be like with Andrey, the uncertain promise of love and security. In a feat, Joy manages to almost make you forget that she’s moving at all as her voice carries us with her.

In a smart casting choice, Joy has been matched up again here with Patrick, her same toxic-love co-star from last year’s production of Heathers at Actor’s Express (Nothing more toxic than the literal poisoners Veronica and J.D.). 

These two actors have a credible and crackling chemistry that makes their initial meet-and-flirt duet, “Natasha and Anatole,” captivating to watch. As does the lighting design by Mary Parker, which transforms the pivotal sequence visually into the tangled hormonal spider web in which these characters are now caught.

In the part of Anatole, Patrick gives one of the best physical comedy performances of the evening, skillfully playing up the irrepressible scumminess of the seducer while also winking at and skewering the trope of the irresistible bad boy. There’s not a comic facial expression that he hasn’t mastered, and this allows for a characterization that is simultaneously rooted in the play itself — while also very much in cahoots with the audience about the artifice of his schtick.

The “Comet” stage is a crowded constellation of Atlanta musical theater talent.

As Anatole’s scheming sister Helene, Janine Ayn serves up Real Housewives of Moscow energy and slams down some scorching vocals. As Natasha’s caring but confounded cousin, Anna Dvorak also delivers fine, sensitive work. Then, of course, there’s Daniel Burns as Pierre, the melancholy half-namesake of the show who anchors the entire piece with his soul.

Ultimately, the self-aware beats speckled throughout the show — and the diverting performances especially — remind us that even though this is big serious literature we’re witnessing, everyone’s here to entertain. And the spectacular entertainment does not stop. At one point in the show, the entire theater was shaking.

Is there a term for when a theater-going experience feels like riding a party bus? If so, insert that here. People were stomping in their seats, clapping and laughing and even singing along. It’s a rare thrill to feel breathless when you’ve hardly been moving at all — but that’s thankfully the very experience that an audience is in for when they go to see this strange and stunning show.


Alexis Hauk has written and edited for numerous newspapers, alt-weeklies, trade publications and national magazines, including TimeThe AtlanticMental Floss, Uproxx and Washingtonian. Having grown up in Decatur, Alexis returned to Atlanta in 2018 after a decade living in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles. By day, she works in health communications. By night, she enjoys covering the arts and being Batman.

ATLANTA BUSINESS CHRONICLE: Theater co-founder a home for local stories, underrepresented voices

By Amy Wenk – Staff Reporter, Atlanta Business Chronicle

Aug 16, 2023

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Lisa Adler knows what it takes to sustain a creative community.

In 1983, she and her husband Jeff co-founded Horizon Theatre Co. in Little Five Points, creating a home for playwrights to develop new works about the Atlanta community. Adler has also been a strong voice for the arts, working to uplift the city’s theatre community throughout her long career.

What led you to your career? I wanted to be a writer, then journalist, then actor from a young age. After graduating from college, I launched into a career as a professional actor. I loved theater because it required continually exploring new worlds and using every part of yourself. Acting in commercials, TV and film at the level that was available to me at the time was dull. I was also working for another theater company at the time, which produced plays that did not feature complex roles for women. I wanted to change that by creating a company that prioritized plays by women and plays with strong, complicated roles for women. I had taken one theater management class in college. I came to Atlanta from Chicago when the thing to do for young artists was to start a theater company. My husband was working for a small theater company that was producing in our current Horizon space, and the artistic director asked if the two of us wanted to produce a play. We decided to take the leap and used $1,000 from wedding gifts to do it. It was a big success artistically. We decided to produce another play, also a hit, and then decided to form a theatre company and produce a full season. I was thrilled to learn all the aspects of running a theater. I did it all to start with until I could afford to hire others. 

What is the biggest challenge in your career or job?  Raising money. Audiences love our intimate theater, but that small size means that ticket sales cover less than half of our costs, and post-pandemic, those costs have risen by more than 30%. Funding comes primarily from ticket sales and individual sponsors and donors, about 8% from four government agencies, and a few loyal and much-appreciated foundation sponsors. Attracting and retaining talented administrative and technical staff can also be challenging, especially post-pandemic.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?  Anytime I am creating something new: a new play that tells a story important to the community, a new education or community program, a new partnership, marketing campaign or strategy.  Also, getting to decide who I want to work with, giving opportunities to women and people of color in all areas of the theater and collaborating with other organizations for positive change.

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Lisa Adler.


What’s the hardest business lesson you’ve learned?  1) Culture eats strategy for breakfast. The best strategy won’t work if the team culture is struggling. 2) Hire slow, fire fast. Good people are worth waiting for and the bad apples on a team really will spoil it for everyone.   

How do you believe Horizon Theatre has shaped Atlanta’s cultural scene?  We have been a stable institution in Atlanta for 40 years and have provided an artistic home for some of our best local actors, directors and designers to work, grow and collaborate. We have been a home for playwrights to develop new works about our community. We are in the forefront of regularly producing works with and by Black artists, and include racial diversity onstage and backstage in all of our plays. We have also been a leader in building a strong community of theaters in Atlanta who partner on marketing, fundraising, advocacy, advertising, resource-sharing and more. This started with my service on the Atlanta Theatre Coalition board, a strong voice for the arts in the 1980s and 1990s, continuing with service as president of the Atlanta New Play Project (now Working Title Playwrights), onto the founding of the Atlanta Intown Theatre Partnership (AITP), and now the online Atlanta Theatre Producers Group, which has been meeting bi-weekly on Zoom since the pandemic began.

What have been some of the most popular productions over the years? “The Waffle Palace,” a comedy we created set in an all-night Atlanta diner. We did it three times and two years of a holiday spin-off. Our small-cast, contemporary musicals “Avenue Q,” “Cowgirls,” and “I Love You You’re Perfect Now Change,” each of which we produced multiple times in different venues. Our sold-out plays by Black writers like “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery (three productions over 20 years),” “Da Kink in my Hair,” “Blackberry Daze” and “The House That Will Not Stand,” which just closed a sold-out run. Our productions of popular Off-Broadway comedies and of course 18 years of the alternative holiday tradition “The Santaland Diaries” by David Sedaris. 

What’s up next for Horizon Theatre? Next up is a fun, quirky comedy called “Rooted” about two women who live in a treehouse who accidentally start a cult, featuring two of our favorite veteran Atlanta actors. In October, we’ll be transforming our theater into an immersive experience for the Broadway hit “Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812,” a very contemporary musical set in the glamorous, romantic world of 19th century Moscow.

What are you reading/listening to/watching? My go-to podcasts are classics: This American Life, Radiolab and Rough Translations [are] just all excellent storytelling. I’m a loyal NPR Marketplace listener to stay current on business trends told in an entertaining way, and for business-centered podcasts, How I Built This and Freakonomics. I was a sucker for the escapism and woman-centric-ness and beauty of Paris (and those great costumes) of “Emily in Paris.” Also loved Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda not letting age get in their way in “Grace and Frankie.” My guilty pleasure is mother-daughter bonding over “The Bachelor.” I also just finished watching all of “The Diplomat;” so great seeing such a complicated woman’s role and that fast-paced political plot. And yes, I want to see “Barbie:” Greta Gerwig, go girl!

Lisa Adler

Title: Co-Artistic/Producing Director and Co-Founder, Horizon Theatre Company, a professional contemporary theatre in Inman Park/Little Five Points.

Born in: Chicago

Lives in: Ormewood Park

Education: B.F.A. in Acting/Theatre at University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana

Hobbies: “Theater is my job and my hobby:directing, reading scripts, seeing plays.” Also, travel, hiking/walking, spending time with her “newly-graduated-from-college daughter,” Sophie

Favorite quote: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Workplace superpower: “Connecting the dots between diverse ideas, people and resources to create new ideas and opportunities.”

AJC Review: In SUPPORT GROUP FOR MEN, “Horizon Theatre subverts the usual men’s group dynamic”

By Benjamin Carr, For the AJC

‘Support Group for Men’ offers laughs with an undercurrent of danger.

Playwright Ellen Fairey’s “Support Group for Men,” onstage at Horizon Theatre through May 28, explores the familiar dramatic territory of masculine angst, yet this is no powder keg. This is more fun than that.

Usually, when a group of average guys appears in a play onstage, it’s all about anger, competition, posturing, repressed emotions and an inevitable, violent explosion of temper and desperation. Theater has conditioned us that, when men gather, the worst can happen, be it in Eugene O’Neill’s barroom, Reginald Rose’s jury room, Arthur Miller’s garage, David Mamet’s real estate office or any Neil LaBute setting ever. And those playwrights make the plight of being a man look like some kind of dreadful, self-inflicted, inescapable doom.

Being a man ain’t always that bad, though, and Fairey’s play dares to say so, subverting what audiences have come to expect. Though the core characters in “Support Group for Men” are unsatisfied with their lives, Fairey writes them with tenderness, humor and empathy, even as she hints that any of these characters could turn hostile. This is primarily a comedy, but there’s an undercurrent of danger here, even when it’s just a scene of men sipping rosé and asking Siri to play some rock music.

Brian (Louis Kyper) lifts the talking stick in the air in celebration.

Credit: Shannel Resto/SJR Photography

Set in 2017 Chicago, months after former President Trump’s election and at the beginning of the #MeToo movement, a group of male friends gathers weekly at the apartment of Brian (Louis Kyper) to discuss their feelings about modern manhood in a safe space.

Hilariously, this involves the men engaging in a grunting ritual, giving themselves culturally appropriated Native American nicknames and passing around a baseball bat decorated with puka shells as a talking stick. This repeated bit is silly and so intentionally wrongheaded that it never stops being funny.

Brian is in his 50s, dating a younger woman and trying to connect better with his emotions.

Other members of Brian’s support group include his nerdy high school friend Delano (Marcus Hopkins-Turner), his younger Apple Store co-worker Kevin (Sariel Toribio) and Roger (Evan Bergman), whom Brian met recently through intramural sports. Roger is the most guarded about opening up about his feelings, a curmudgeon who works as a maintenance man cleaning The Bean sculpture.

Brian’s Wrigleyville apartment sits above a bar where rowdy patrons begin brawls just below his window, so the meeting is frequently interrupted by potential violence. Soon, the men witness an attack on a genderqueer person named Alex (Roberto Mendez), and the group gets questioned by police officers Caruso (Kelly Criss, who shares the role with Suehyla E. Young) and Nowak (Brad Brinkley).

The introduction of these new characters upends the group’s trajectory, giving Roger in particular new ways to consider his own anxieties.

Roger (Evan Bergman, left) makes a connection with assault victim Alex (Roberto Mendez) in “Support Group for Men.”

Credit: Shannel Resto/SJR Photography

While it explores emotional intelligence and depth, it is never a slog. “Support Group for Men” is really, really funny. Running 90 minutes without intermission, laughs come quick and often. The chemistry of the entire cast is strong, and the familiar way they tease each other is endearing.

Bergman, in particular, is incredible in this, playing the complicated Roger with suggestions of tenderness, depression and bristling volatility. At the start, he is the hardest character to read, yet Bergman makes Roger the beating heart of the show. It’s a tightrope walk of a performance.

As the attacked Alex, Mendez also infuses a difficult, dynamic role with warmth and fervor. The other characters don’t know what to make of this jumpy, stumbling, bruised stranger in a wig. And yet Mendez portrays Alex with gentle, unpredictable, fragile grace.

Hopkins-Turner is hilarious as Delano, whose deadpan interjections and buttoned-up demeanor cover up the tensions he carries. The actor gets some of the biggest laughs in the play by conservatively zigging when everyone else zags.

Kyper grounds Brian as the leader of the group, giving him a goofy, granola energy. As the character tries to gloss over any potential challenges he might be facing by instead concentrating on the party he’s hosting, Kyper makes Brian familiar and likable.

Toribio plays up his character’s youth, optimism and energy, almost as a way to needle the others in the group, who are all from a different generation and hold different ideas about the changing world.

Officers Novak (Brad Brinkley) and Caruso (Suehyla E. Young, who shares the role with Kelly Criss) interrogate the Support Group for Men, led by Brian (Louis Kyper, center).

Credit: Shannel Resto/SJR Photography

When their characters invade the primal masculine proceedings, Criss and Brinkley steal every scene they’re in by gleefully mocking the group. Criss has an enviable side-eye, and Brinkley makes for an amusing, closed-minded dolt.

Among the technical details, the set design by Isabel and Mariah Curley-Clay feels lived-in and fantastic, and the props designed by Avanthea Holzman — particularly the decorated baseball bat — deserve praise. Dan Bauman’s sound design makes the frequent commotion in the unseen alley feel real.

As directed by Jeff Adler, Fairey’s script does feel very often like an extended sitcom pilot, and the play has more endings than it needs. The playwright doesn’t trust the audience enough to leave them with loose ends or ambiguity. But it is a satisfying, well-acted play.


“Support Group for Men”

Through May 28. $20-$35. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave NE, Atlanta. 404-584-7450,

Bottom Line: Very funny, surprisingly layered script performed by an excellent ensemble.

Popular play turned Netflix series ‘Kim’s Convenience,’ about a Korean-Canadian family, comes to Atlanta area


The hit play that took Canada by storm and launched a popular Netflix show has arrived in the Atlanta area. “Kim’s Convenience” is a comedic play about a Korean-Canadian family living in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Toronto. The show is on stage at Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville through Feb. 19 and will move to Horizon Theatre in Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood beginning Mar. 3. 

Director Rebecca Wear joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom about the heart-warming, thoughtful family story that’s made such waves on American stages and screens.

Review: “Kim’s Convenience” centers Korean voices, complex ideas, laughs


It’s easy to see how Kim’s Convenience, which runs at Aurora Theatre through February 19, lent itself well to the sitcom-like format of its delightful and universally loved Netflix series of the same name. Drawn from Ins Choi’s real-life background as the son of Korean immigrants who operated a bodega in Toronto, the characters are so compelling and multifaceted that by the time the last scene rolls around, you’re longing to see where the rest of the story goes.

The original work for the stage is the raw clay that would eventually get shaped into its ideal format — the multi-episode arc. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to enjoy about this Rebecca Wear-directed production, which has been lovingly rendered with attention to detail at the Lawrenceville venue.

With its short run time (no intermission), the play gives us a pivotal moment in time for Mr. Kim (called “Appa,” meaning “father”) and his thriving business. With a Walmart on the way and a neighborhood that’s rapidly gentrifying, Kim is faced with the decision of whether to accept a substantial offer to sell — one that would let him retire — or whether to hang onto the community staple he spent decades establishing as an asset for his family.

For fans of the Netflix series, the Appa Kim you’ll see here is sometimes a bit harder to love. He has numerous questionable opinions; he’s stubborn and refuses to apologize. But he also has grit and determination, an immense heart and the making for a remarkably complex character in just the short hour and a half runtime.

One of Appa’s most profound flaws is how quickly he flies off the handle with his children. He has exacting standards for his daughter, Janet, an aspiring photographer, even in tasks as simple as taking out the garbage. And he’s not spoken to his son, Jung, since Appa hit 16-year-old Jung so hard that it landed the boy in the hospital. Immediately after, Jung ran away and has been estranged from his father ever since, though he still visits his mother, Umma (meaning “mother”), secretly at church.

Appa quickly flies off the handle with his children and has exacting standards for his daughter, Janet, in “Kim’s Convenience.”

This heavy stuff is interspersed with amusing, sitcom-like dialogue. When Kim encounters the casual racism of a customer who remarks, “You look like the guy from The Last Samurai,” he replies, “Tom Cruise?” Umma, played with compassion and subtlety by Yingling Zhu, has some funny lines of her own, as when her son asks if her happiest memory was of the day he was born, and she replies that, no, it was the “most painful.”

But there’s more going on here with the humor, which also serves to disarm and clear a path to greater emotional substance. Laughs abound when Appa Kim tells his artistic daughter, Janet, who is 30 and unmarried, “Now is the desperation time for you.” Later, though, he realizes he can give support and approval to his adult child in a way he never experienced from his dad.

Choi packs a lot of valuable observations, too, about generational differences — the dance between how to show gratitude for what you have while also having the right to make one’s own choices without being guilt-tripped. Do children owe their parents for the necessities the parents provided for them? The characters have different ideas on this age-old question.

It helps that the cast all share a comfortable chemistry, all inhabiting their roles with ease. At the helm, Vancouver-based James Yi inhabits Appa Kim with the dexterity and authority of a Kim’s Convenience veteran who has played the role multiple times all across Canada. (He also appears in the Netflix series.)

Jung has been estranged from his father since age 16 in “Kim’s Convenience,” but he still visits his Umma secretly at church.

Rotating through multiple characters in rapid succession, Lamar K. Cheston brings energetic versatility and some of the evening’s funniest moments. At one point, as Janet’s love interest, he imbues a kind of rubber-faced comic timing to a series of self-conscious attempts at flirting.

As the struggling and alienated Jung, Ryan Vo subtly and tenderly conveys a man just barely keeping it together so that he can provide for his young child – –  someone whose dreams are only getting further and further away.

Another standout is the scenic design by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, so exquisitely detailed that you feel like you could walk on set and run errands. There are real snacks, drinks and medications. The door even has an ad for RockStar Energy Drinks.

A quick note: A couple of bits here don’t quite hold up. In the intervening years between when this premiered at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2011 and now, the Black Lives Matter movement formed, and cellphone cameras allowed for a more widespread and visceral understanding of the horrifying police brutality and racial profiling that Black and Brown citizens in the U.S. face on a regular basis. It would be tough to imagine Choi now writing a comic scene in which a Black man gets tackled to the ground by our protagonist, as occurs in this play.

Via a fixture above the stage of “Kim’s Convenience,” we get a screen with captions in Korean.

Most refreshingly, though, is the thoughtful way that Aurora has worked to ensure that Korean voices remain at the center of this production. First, via a nifty fixture above the stage, we get a screen with captions in Korean throughout the mostly English dialogue.

The script also includes exchanges between Appa and Umma entirely in Korean with no English translation, which is pretty great. It reminded me of how Steven Spielberg’s sublime remake of West Side Story in 2021 presented its Spanish dialogue very purposefully without English captions to ensure that those scenes felt more authentic than they did in the 1960s version. The “language had to exist in equal proportions alongside the English with no help,” as Spielberg put it.

For audience members who are used to seeing everything framed in a way that is easy and digestible for them  — i.e. audiences that are White, non-immigrant, able-bodied, hetero, cis-gender, etc. —  it’s essential to experience, at least once, what it’s like not to have everything aimed solely at you. With Kim’s Convenience, you are invited to spend time with characters, spaces and dialogue that you may not have firsthand experience with. And that’s a vital part of what the arts can do.

ArtsATL: “Y’allmark” brings comedy gold, Hallmark storytelling and a wall full of wigs



Narrator Topher Payne greets special guest Enoch King during a performance of “Y’allmark Christmas,” as improvisers Amber Nash and Kevin Gillese watch from the steps. (Photos by Lisa Adler)


Those Christmas-obsessed heroes and heroines from made-for-TV romances get to choose their own unscripted adventure in Y’allmark Christmas: An Improvised Holiday “Movie”, onstage at Horizon Theatre through December 23.

Though audiences can still expect that wholesome holiday spirit during every performance, each has a touch of wacky subversiveness as well. The show was devised by Amber Nash, star of TV’s Archer and a longtime Dad’s Garage improviser, and Topher Payne, an actual screenwriter of several Hallmark Christmas movies, including Broadcasting Christmas and A Gift to Remember.

“Topher was essential from the very beginning when I first had the idea to do this show,” Nash said. “There are other improv troupes doing Hallmark movie spoofs, but I can guarantee you they don’t have a real Hallmark movie writer narrating them.”

Payne, also an award-winning playwright, last appeared onstage at Horizon Theatre as the lead actor in their final production of David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries.

“Topher’s not just a writer,” Nash said. “He’s also a brilliant presence and stage performer. So it’s not like we’re pulling some curmudgeonly old writer out of a basement.”

The improvised show, which began in 2017 as a two-performer, 20-minute sketch at Dad’s Garage, now contains a rotating cast of performers, special guests from across Atlanta stages, two acts and an intermission. 

As the narrator in the original sketch and in the new show, Payne appears on stage alongside the improvisers, offering guidance to the story and “network notes” for when things go inevitably awry — like when a dreamy-eyed girl-next-door accidentally plummeted down the side of a snow-covered mountain at a Thanksgiving weekend performance.

Improvisers Freddy Boyd and Jamila Porter rehearse a scene from “Y’allmark.”

“I come in with the goal every night of writing a Hallmark movie, and I’m going according to network notes I’ve received before, brand-identity specifics that I have to keep in mind when I’m writing,” Payne said. “And the cast doesn’t have to try and mess with me. The comedy comes out of a group of people actually trying to do the movie right, the push and pull of that and moments of clarifying what is brand-specific versus what isn’t.”

At other points, Payne stops the show if the language gets too PG-13 or if the actors give their characters sexual impulses or a bleak backstory. This lends the show a behind-the-scenes feel, like the plays Noises Off and The Play that Goes Wrong.

This is the first co-production of Horizon Theatre and Dad’s Garage, and Nash finds the expanded show and the Horizon stage very exciting.

“In the beginning, it was just Topher and two improvisers,” she said. “For this run, we have a big, beautiful Christmasy set. We have many more costumes and wigs because, apparently, if you shake Horizon Theatre, wigs fall out of it. They have great stuff.”

The set for Y’allmark Christmas is the same set as Horizon’s previous production, Designing Women, but that construction, designed by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, has been repainted and decked out with holiday regalia for the season. It also has coat racks and shelves filled with potential costumes and a wall full of wigs that performers can choose for their different characters.

Payne watches improvisers Freddy Boyd and Kevin Gillese rehearse a scene from “Y’allmark.” In the background is pianist Justin Geer.

The cast, featuring Nash, Kevin Gillese, Eve Krueger, Freddy Boyd, Jamila Porter and Joshua Quinn, will alternate between leading and supporting roles within each performance. Every performance will also feature a special guest star, such as Enoch King, Tom Key or Gina Rickicki. Having that expanded cast will also allow for diverse variations on the Hallmark brand of storytelling, Payne said. 

“We have nights with an all-female cast, nights with an all-male cast,” Payne said. “We have nights where it’s an entirely BIPOC cast, so we get to do stories from the Mahogany line. We’ve already done a round of that in rehearsal, and there’s an additional comedic element where it’s a story of an all-BIPOC cast created by this White guy.”

Audience suggestions are also taken during the show, which Dad’s Garage fans will find more familiar than Horizon patrons might. But the show should appeal to both audiences.

Krueger, who appeared in the cast of Designing Women and is company manager at Dad’s, suggested the partnership between the two theaters to Horizon artistic director Lisa Adler, who embraced the opportunity.

“It feels like communities coming together in a lot of ways,” Krueger said. “The Horizon audience and the Dad’s audience — there’s not a huge overlap in that Venn diagram, but I think this is a show that can hit both of them in a way that can really make everyone happy.”

Payne, sitting, shares a hug with “Y’allmark” cast member Kevin Gillese.

Adler said holiday programming has always been a staple of the Horizon season, so she was encouraged when Payne and Krueger brought the show from Dad’s.

“We didn’t have another show running, so it was crazy not to try,” Adler said. “It’s a fun opportunity.” 

Gillese first began performing in the sketch during the pandemic when he was quarantined with Nash, his wife. He always played his part during those months with a hint of reluctance, and the pair realized that challenging Payne as the writer was comedy gold.

The expanded Y’allmark still has those little clashes, which helps playfully skewer the genre.

“I am here as a representative of everyone who likes to make the occasional dig at the genre while still lovingly doing it,” Gillese said. “Sincerely, I think that people that love the Hallmark movies will love this show, and the people that hate those movies will also love this show.”


Benjamin Carr, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL since 2019. His plays have been produced at The Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, and the Center for Puppetry Arts. His novel Impacted was published by The Story Plant in 2021.

Square Blues on City Lights

A quest for activism across three generations in Horizon’s ‘Square Blues’

City Lights | WABE

August 2nd, 2022

“Square Blues” is on stage at Horizon Theatre through Aug. 21. (Photo credit: Greg Mooney)

Activism brings to mind many images: silent protestors sitting in at a whites-only restaurant demanding equal rights, high school students leading a movement for gun control, running for Congress to overhaul discriminatory policies.

The new play “Square Blues,” having its world premiere at Horizon Theatre, follows three generations of a Southern Black family, each with its own approach to activism. The playwright Shay Youngblood and director Tom Jones joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about the play. 

Interview highlights:

On confrontations with racism that inspired “Square Blues:”

“I was in graduate school at Brown University. I was sitting on the train, looking around. I picked up a copy of the New York Times that someone had abandoned. This was in 1992,” recounted Youngblood. “I looked at several articles, and I was just astounded by the racism that I saw in several of those articles. I looked around me on the train to see if anyone had read these articles and were just as outraged as I was. In that moment, I created the character ‘Square Blues,’ a man who has been living with racism, oppression, dealing with all kinds of obstacles in his life because of his race, and what is he gonna do about it? He’s angry, but what is he gonna do about it?”

“It was my thesis play,” Youngblood explained. “There is a family of activists. So the daughter, she is protesting everything. She’s very young, and she is out in the streets protesting, but then the fight gets very personal for her. Her father is all about reparations, and he’s not necessarily just wanting a check. He wants radical change… The grandmother, Blue’s mother, she was married to a Jewish man, actually sort of ‘underground married’ to him because it was illegal at that time, and it was illegal for Blacks and whites to marry until 1967. So this family comes together to figure out how can they support each other in their different generations of activism.”

A quest for justice echoing across generations:

“I think it really is an ensemble piece, and I think what she’s done really, really very poignantly and wonderfully well is to not put the piece on the shoulders of anyone because it really is about those three generations of activists,” said Jones. 

He later added, “Once you peel back the layers, each generation really does take on the same strategy, the same methodology – whether it’s sit-in, whether it’s protest, whether it’s civil disobedience – because what each generation is doing is flying in the face of laws that are unjust… From one generation to the next, I think that’s what’s so beautifully poignant about the piece is that each generation, though they think they’re different, begins to find that nexus; that, in fact, they do, at the point when things are most critical, at the point when you are most challenged… begin to resemble and resort to the same kind of strategies and tactics.”

How resistance actions look different in the rearview mirror:

“What people did in Birmingham, what people did in Selman, what people did in Atlanta, what people did in Mississippi, in trying to uncover what that injustice looked like, was also extreme in its own time,” said Jones. “The convenience of time makes it look as if it was much more tame than it was. When you sick fire hoses on people and German shepherd dogs, and when you’re blowing up churches on 16th street in Birmingham, that’s an extreme response to trying to change the country. So you jettison 20, 30 years later to 1992 in Karma’s generation, trying to bring awareness and AIDS awareness to her community, it looks extreme. And yet now through the lens of 2022, we look back and say, ‘Perhaps it wasn’t as extreme,’ as we begin to look at what the uprisings are in response to George Floyd.”

Jones added, “Each generation looks probably more extreme in its activism, and yet at its… core, it really is strategically the same thing. Nostalgia and memory has a way of coloring things in a way that you don’t get what the immediate impact [was] in its time.”

“Square Blues” is on stage at Horizon Theatre through Aug. 21. Tickets and more information are available at

Horizon Presents the World Premiere of SQUARE BLUES

Horizon Theatre Company Presents the World Premiere of

A play about love and revolution
by Shay Youngblood

ATLANTA (JULY 2022) – Love and revolution are at the center of the world premiere of acclaimed Shay Youngblood’s play, Square Blues, about three generations of a southern Black family who share a passion for activism, art, and following your heart. But they don’t always agree on the methods, especially when their protests threaten their freedom and safety. Square Blues makes its premiere on the Horizon stage from July 22 – August 21 (Press Opening July 29). In this expansive, timely, and magical comedy-drama, the Blue family faces a crossroads. Only together can they find the courage to stand up for their beliefs as they redefine what makes a family and what holds it together.  Horizon is located in Little Five Points/Inman Park (1083 Austin Avenue N.E., Atlanta, GA 30307, at the corner of Euclid and Austin Avenues). Free parking.  Performances are Wed through Fri at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm, Sundays at 5 pm. Tickets and information are available at or 404-584-7450.

Directed by Thomas W. Jones II (Horizon Artistic Associate, Blackberry Daze, Da Kink in My Hair, Sweet Water Taste), Square Blues has “…a virtue of gut, urgency, and necessity…unadorned honesty…” (Edward Albee, Judge for the 21st Century Playwrights Award).  Shay’s first play Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery premiered at Horizon in 1988 and has been seen all over the world in the past three decades.   This production features a cast of Atlanta-based professional actors and designers from theatre and TV, including multi-award-winning resident set designers Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay.

Welcome to the Fifth Avenue Happy Café, an Atlanta kosher soul food restaurant and meeting place for civil rights activists in the 60s.   It’s now the early 90s and the Blue family, matriarch Odessa, son Square and granddaughter Karma are still serving up fried catfish and lemon pound cake and working for social change.  Square (played by Jay Jones) has been collecting names on petitions demanding financial reparations and a public apology for slavery for decades.  But now he’s holding a large (and illegal) tax refund received by claiming a Black Reparations tax credit.  His mother Odessa demands he pay it back before he is arrested. So does his long-time girlfriend and fellow activist Miss Tuesday.  Odessa doesn’t want to risk losing the cafe, which she was given by her great love, Blue’s father, a white Jewish Russian. They were rebels too, an interracial couple deeply in love in the 40s and 50s when intermarriage was illegal.  Odessa’s granddaughter Karma (played by Chantal Maurice) continues the activist tradition today in a new form, creating provocative public performance art with spray paint and nude models to bring attention to homelessness, LGTQ rights and AIDS/HIV.   She’s  in love with partner-in-crime Lola (Patty De La Garza), a Latinx poet who is coaxing her to move away to in California.   But when Karma ends up in jail for her “art actions” and Blue risks prison with his “black payback”,  the three generations of the family must decide how to move forward – together or on different paths -– and how much to risk in their quest for change.   

“We are thrilled to be premiering Shay’s play about passionate activists from three generations at this time of upheaval and change in our worldWith the great racial reckoning over the past two years, Square Blues is current and urgent,” comments Horizon Co-Artistic/Producing Director Lisa Adler.  “The play looks at how activism changes as we age and the need for each generation’s work and perspective.   What can we learn from the past? What needs to change to make progress?  What is the future of activism?  How can different generations work together to make progress? We hope that the play sparks discussion about how we can work together across generational divides to find common ground that unites and amplifies our effort for change.”

Horizon has a long history of collaboration with Shay Youngblood, having produced the World Premiere of her first play, Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery, in 1988.  It went onto many productions across the country including Ensemble Theatre of Houston, Pegasus in Chicago, Vital in NYC and was reprised at Horizon in 2010 (directed by Square Blues director Tom Jones), winning Atlanta’s Suzi Award for Best Production of a Play.  Horizon also produced her Talking Bones and Amazing Grace, and workshopped many of her plays, including Square Blues.  A fiction writer who turned her Big Mama Stories into her first play, she subsequently received her MFA in playwriting from Brown under Paula Vogel.  She has a had a long career as novelist (Black Girl in Paris; Soul Kiss), teacher, playwright, and visual artist, living all over the world.  She was born and raised in Columbus, GA, went to Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University), and recently returned to live in Atlanta, GA.  Shay is currently one of our Black Women Speak writers, commissioned to write a new work about Black Southern women. 

With Square Blues, I am looking at the very different strategies of three generations in a family confronting racism, oppression, injustice, and how they each stood up for their beliefs.” Shay wrote of the play recently. “Naked protesters, a wall mural created during the course of the play, interracial, intergenerational, racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and redefining what makes a family were all ingredients that made this my most topical play. Reparations for Black, Brown, and Indigenous people is a big part of the conversation in the play. I also wanted to show sensuality between these Black characters and how they dealt with the reality of their lives with a sense of humor and grace.”

“I love Square Blues’ vivid, passionate characters, the magic realism, the musicality of the language, the high theatricality of performance art protests on stage and creating a mural of famous Black leaders every night, the deep love between grandmother, father and daughter, and how different generations approach the call for change,” continues Lisa Adler.  “It’s thrilling to see Shay bring the craft she has learned as a writer over the last three decades to this deep, funny, and moving work.”

Horizon Theatre Company’s performances of Square Blues start July 22, 2022 (Press Opening July 29, 2022) and run until August 21, 2022 (possible extension through August 28) at Horizon in Little Five Points/Inman Park (1083 Austin Avenue N.E., Atlanta, GA 30307, at the corner of Euclid and Austin Avenues). Free parking.  Performances are Wed through Fri at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm, Sundays at 5 pm. Tickets start at $30 for weekdays and $35 for weekends. ($20 for full-time students under 25 with a valid student ID and $3 off full-price tickets for Seniors). Prices are subject to change and will rise as performances fill up.  

For tickets and information, visit or call 404-584-7450.


Playwright Shay Youngblood

Director Thomas W. Jones II

Co-Artistic Director Lisa Adler

Set Designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay

Costume Designer Dr. L. Nyrobi Moss

Lighting Designer Mary Parker

Sound Designer Johnathon Taylor (Multiband Studio)

Projection Designer Robbie Hayes

Props Master Dionna Davis

Technical Director Jeff Adler

Asst. Technical Director Noah Auten

WABE: Interview

Horizon Theatre’s ‘Roe’ highlights the women involved in the historic Roe v. Wade case

Adron McCann | WABE

June 2nd, 2022

Jennifer Alice Aker and Rhyn McLemore in “Roe.” (Photo by Horizon Theatre)

Earlier this month, there was a leak of a draft majority opinion from the Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision in 1973 that led to legalized abortion in America. The personal journeys of the women involved in that historic case are at the heart of Horizon Theatre’s new production, “Roe.” The play’s director Lisa Adler joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes along with actors Jennifer Alice Acker and Rhyn McLemore to talk about “Roe” and its stirring portrayal of the women whose struggle for autonomy defined American abortion politics for decades.  

Interview highlights:

Two distinct perspectives looking back on history:

“It takes place over 20 years. So it starts in 1969 and 1970, right before Sarah and Norma meet, when Norma McCorvey, who is ‘Jane Roe,’ is pregnant,” said Adler. “It goes to about 1995, and then there’s also a piece at the beginning and end that is today. And the conceit of the show is that Sarah and Norma, at the end of their lives, are looking back and telling their stories to you. So they come out and they tell competing stories about this is what the story of ‘Roe’ is. And ‘Jane Roe,’ Norma McCorvey, tells hers, and Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued the case at the Supreme Court, tells hers.”

Why we should consider the personal stories behind Roe v. Wade:

 “I was one of the, I think, many people who did not know that Norma McCorvey did not in fact have an abortion,” said McLemore. “I think a lot of people historically just assume that because she’s Jane Roe at the heart of this historic case, dealing with abortion, that she had an abortion — she did not. I mean, that’s how little I knew about her before tackling the play, and her story is such a heartbreaking, complex one.”

“The thing I realized as I was doing research is that this poor woman just wanted to be seen by people and validated by people. She comes from a very broken home, a very tumultuous relationship with her mother,” McLemore continued. “The big challenge for me with this role was, why the heck did she flip-flop? Why did she go from being so adamantly pro-choice to pro-life? And that’s the big arc and journey that I have in this play, and it’s a big ol’ arc, let me tell you … In the [FX] documentary [‘AKA Jane Roe’], it is revealed that on her deathbed, it’s her deathbed confession that she says, ‘I was never really pro-life. I was paid a bunch of money by the pro-lifers to flip-flop.’ She really was manipulated throughout her life.”

On playing lawyer Sarah Weddington, who argued “Roe” at 26 years old:

“Absolutely one of the sharpest thinkers I’ve ever encountered,” said Acker. “A lot of my research has been reading her book, ‘A Question of Choice,’ which, the clarity and conciseness of thought, but with the emotional nature of it, the human nature, the way she communicates and relates to people; watching her in video interviews as well, she has a sparkle in her eye that makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room. She really hears and sees you. So she was almost this uniquely poised figure. I wonder if she’s the only woman in America who could have done it at that time.” 

“I believe she also did the case pro bono, because no one would hire her as a woman. She was trying to get a law firm job and could not book it. We discuss that in the play a little bit.” Acker added. “So truly an exceptional figure, and she was an advocate for her entire life. She was an advocate for women’s rights before this case; that’s how she found herself in the Supreme Court in 1972 in 1973 … Her entire life was just defined by fighting for the rights of women.” 

ArtsATL: ROE Review

Review: Horizon’s “Roe” offers choice to be informed about issue of the moment


“It is really hard to talk objectively about history,” a character states during Roe, which continues at Horizon Theatre through June 12. And how true that is, given that history is still being written about the matter at this very moment.

Just a week before this exuberant and exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) production of Lisa Loomer’s 2017 play opened earlier this month, a leaked draft from the conservative majority Supreme Court became public. It declared its intention to overturn the almost 50-year-old landmark Roe v. Wade decision that affirmed that women have a constitutional right to privately decide what to do with their pregnancies.

The Roe story presented here spans several decades and features key real-life characters such as Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued and won Roe v. Wade at the age of 26, as well as the “real Jane Roe” herself, the fascinatingly complex Norma McCorvey. Loomer’s work debuted at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., just two weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the year of the Women’s March.

Looking back, the first month of 2017 feels like an entirely different era altogether. Pre-#MeToo, pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd, pre-insurrection and pre-Trump’s appointment of enough anti-choice Supreme Court justices to begin rolling back laws that, perhaps, many had taken for granted not so long ago.

As born-again Christian pastor and extremist anti-choice activist Flip Benham, actor Daniel Parvis “excels in smarminess,” writes ArtsATL critic Alexis Hauk.

Roe’s first act spans 1969 to 1989, while the second deals just with a pivotal three years in the early ‘90s, then jumps forward to today. The “today” of 2017, that is. So, in some strange ways, the play, as directed by Lisa Adler, feels simultaneously more relevant than ever while also oddly dated. Again, though, the issue is that history is currently being scrawled across TV news screens in real time, and the outlook is grim for women — especially poor women of color who are disproportionately impacted by anti-choice legislation.

Recognizing the exponentially growing distance between our present and the relatively recent past has become easier to spot. It’s there whenever a piece of art or comedy that captured the zeitgeist just five or so years ago now, upon rewatch, seems stale or adorably
naïve (at best). Consider, for instance, how many have noted that Lin Manuel-Miranda’s magnum opus Hamilton did not age so well in the short intervening years between its phenomenal stage success and its debut on Disney+ in 2020.

Norma McCorvey, who died in 2017, led a tumultuous life. She was raised by an abusive mother in Louisiana and had a brief marriage to an abusive man when she was 16. She was also a lesbian finding her way into adulthood during a deeply intolerant time when it could be dangerous on every level to come out of the closet. Initially, she sought legal help in Texas because she thought it would help her find a doctor to perform an abortion. However, by the time the case was settled almost a year later, she had wound up having to carry her pregnancy to term and give up the baby for adoption.

For decades, McCorvey spoke at pro-choice, Second Wave feminist rallies, even living with Gloria Allred for a time (which yields in the play a fun musical interlude with a number from Gypsy changed to “Everything’s Coming Up Roe”). But later in life, she became disillusioned with the feminist movement, which she perceived as using her as a symbol without caring about or supporting her as a person. At that point, she converted to evangelical Christianity and became a strong supporter of anti-choice organizations and politicians.

Played with empathy and charisma by Rhyn McLemore, Norma is a tricky part to pull off. The character can be irreverent and funny, and it’s hard not to sympathize with the rotten hand she’s been dealt over and over. But she can also come across as selfish, manipulative and misguided. She hurts those around her. Her decisions can be befuddling and enraging and all too understandable. That’s the making of a great character study.

Jennifer Alice Acker is compelling, as well, as Sarah Weddington, who became a star in women’s advocacy for the rest of her life (she died last December). Her sarcasm and gutsiness are delightful as she channels Julia Sugarbaker with tongue-in-cheek comments such as, “I was so focused on my career that I let my subscription to Good Housekeeping lapse.”

Daniel Parvis as Flip Benham mines some sharp comic delivery skills in several parts that could be summed up as “misogynists who mean well.” Particularly as bigoted born-again Christian pastor Flip Benham, whom Norma at first calls “Flip Venom,” Parvis excels in smarminess. The real-life Benham, part of extremist anti-choice organization Operation Rescue, has a long list of awful deeds, including stalking a doctor in Charlotte, to the point where the pastor was ordered to stay 500 feet away, and protesting outside the weddings of gay couples. But here, Parvis demonstrates through slimy charm just how Norma might have gotten seduced by Flip’s master salesman techniques. We first meet him at the top of Act Two as he greets the audience with a cheery, “Welcome. Welcome to the gates of hell!” grinning like an anti-choice Charles Manson.

Rhyn McLemore imbues the “fascinatingly complex” and challenging role of McCorvey with charisma and empathy. Here, McCorvey (center) takes the podium at a rally.

Other cast standouts include Lorraine Rodriguez-Reyes as Connie, Norma’s long-suffering partner. Shelli Delgado does fine work in the ensemble as one of the Kool-Aid-drinking extremists at Operation Rescue, who manipulates through sunshiny friendliness. Though underutilized in this production, the talented Jasmine Renee Ellis has some nice moments, too, particularly as a woman trying to find a clinic to get an abortion, only to get tricked and guilt-tripped by anti-choice activists.

Over the nearly three-hour run time, the play also presents how accounts of the same events may conflict with one another, accurately reflecting the multiple versions, sometimes told in different ways by the same person. Characters frequently break the fourth wall to deliver epilogues for their characters.

There are clever and delightful tricks in the writing where the same character enters and replays the scene twice, such as an empathetic doctor first and the second time with a vague but thick foreign accent and questionable medical ethics. This illustrates the two different characterizations that Norma wrote in her two books.

On the other hand, some of the play’s parts don’t work as well — often when dramatic tonal shifting is involved. For instance, a consciousness-raising scene is part Vagina Monologues, part harrowing documentary, as it moves abruptly from body-related joke-telling to brutal and detailed descriptions of what pre-Roe abortion was really like.

This production, I should note, has experienced challenges due to the continuing pandemic, with some cast replacements on the night I attended. Most of those were seamless and impossible to spot without prior knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes. So it’s also remarkable to behold the agility that Horizon and other theater companies have adopted to present timely programming.

Ultimately, after this epic experience of fascinating history, character exploration and depressing déjà vu, the biggest questions I walked away with were, “What can we now make of this?” What does this show offer to a May and June 2022 audience that we aren’t already viscerally feeling? Does it offer catharsis for anyone who might be deeply worried about the state of women’s rights? Not necessarily. Does the play offer interesting context and valuable insight into what preceded this moment? Yes. Does that make for a satisfying evening of entertainment? That depends on your mood and whether you’re looking to escape or fully plug into the ever-updating news scroll of history.


Alexis Hauk has written and edited for numerous newspapers, alt-weeklies, trade publications and national magazines including Time, the AtlanticMental Floss, Uproxx and Washingtonian magazine. Having grown up in Decatur, Alexis returned to Atlanta in 2018 after a decade living in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles. By day, she works in health communications. By night, she enjoys covering the arts and being Batman.