Four New Acts

In the 1980s, summertime was prime time for theatergoing in Charlotte. Three of the city’s best companies—CPCC Summer Theatre, Charlotte Repertory Theatre, and Charlotte Shakespeare Company—vied for supremacy, offering a mix of modern stage classics, popular musicals, and Shakespearean fare.

Charlotte’s theater scene—once thought to be on life support—gets a boost this summer as four new or revived companies hit the stage.

In the 1980s, summertime was prime time for theatergoing in Charlotte. Three of the city's best companies—CPCC Summer Theatre, Charlotte Repertory Theatre, and Charlotte Shakespeare Company—vied for supremacy, offering a mix of modern stage classics, popular musicals, and Shakespearean fare.

Gradually, the landscape changed. Shakespeare folded, and the Rep opted for a fall-through-spring season, before it folded, too. Aside from CPCC Summer, none of our major companies focused on satisfying their audiences' postsolstice theater fix. Even among the fringe companies—those willing to challenge us with works by Charles Busch, Paula Vogel, Chris Durang, and other edgy off-Broadway fare playwrights—the best were inclined to take a nap during the hot weather.

Summer wasn't completely barren. The Blumenthal Performing Arts Center continued to bring in such megahits as The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King. Recently, though, local theater producers began rediscovering summertime as fertile ground. Ironically, the rediscovery has occurred in the absence of professional theater at the highest Actors' Equity level—when the Rep went down, many predicted Charlotte's theater scene would go down with it. Yet there are numerous encouraging signs of fresh growth.

Four companies, one new and three revived, are presenting works this summer. The artists behind these outfits all have extensive experience with Charlotte audiences—acting, directing, and producing on the local fringe scene. All are making cautious, pragmatic plans for the months ahead—not anticipating any operating cash from the Arts & Science Council. All are hoping to reap a rich summer harvest to spark their success. And, universally, they're wary of issuing rosy predictions.

Offshoots of Off-Tryon
Glenn Griffin and John Hartness, former partners at the defunct Off-Tryon Theatre Company, have good reason to be wary. But they have equally good reasons to be excited and enthusiastic. Both are helping lead companies that are making their first appearance in Charlotte, both are teaming up with new partners, and both companies have already cleared the launching pad. And they're embracing intriguing new business models that could set them apart.

Griffin has stirred up plenty of excitement with the new Queen City Theatre Company, which will produce edgy, "character-based" plays and musicals, interspersed with choice cabaret imports from around the country. Griffin and his new associates brought in drag performer extraordinaire Miss Coco Peru for a fundraiser on March 31, selling out the 300 seats at Actors Theatre on East Stonewall Street in just three days—including a couple of VIP rows at $100 a ticket.

So Queen City is cruising into its first season, set to begin August 9 at Spirit Square, without the customary ocean of red ink.

"We're fairly solid," Griffin says. "That is something we're really lucky about. Coco really helped us financially pay off all our debt and set us up for our next two shows. Then we have money coming in from our backers every month, which is good."

With bankable cabaret acts staggered in between their locally produced stage works, Queen City hopes to widen their audience base while sustaining a steady cash flow. Meanwhile, our first sampling of Griffin's QC handiwork opens next month as he directs the Charlotte premiere of Sordid Lives, a Southern-fried comedy featuring trashy Texans on parade.

"It's about a family whose mother died while having sex with her lover," he says, "because she got up and tripped over his two wooden legs, hitting her head on the hotel sink. So it's about the funeral afterward. They made a movie version of it around 1998, and it has a cult following."

Among Queen City's other local premieres, the one freighted with the most critical acclaim is Dog Sees God, a biting sendup of Peanuts that follows Charles Schulz's huggables into ill-starred adolescence (February 7-23). The cabaret season launches with San Fran imports The Kinsey Sicks. The so-called "dragapella" group sings and satirizes at Booth Playhouse on November 16.

Bard without Borders
John Hartness, the managing director at Off-Tryon, hasn't acted or directed in Charlotte since the end of 2005, when his partnership with Griffin ended. Then in April, he hooked up with Chris O'Neill, who founded Shakespeare Carolina in 1998 in Rock Hill, only to shut it down after just two seasons.

Over the ensuing years, O'Neill found himself working repeatedly with Hartness, most memorably as Judas in Corpus Christi and as guest director of Playing with Fire. It felt right. So when O'Neill returned to the classics, he asked Hartness to star as his Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.

Hartness was reenergized by the two-week run outdoors on the greensward off Rock Hill's Main Street. "There is something that can't be matched about doing a show under the stars," he says.

After agreeing to come onboard permanently, Hartness proved his value while designing lighting for another classic on Queens Road. "As I was working on The Crucible at Theatre Charlotte, I went to [executive director] Ron Law and said, ‘Hey, you have something going on this summer?' And he said, ‘Well, no.' So I went back to Chris, and we worked out a deal by which we could do Taming of the Shrew again at Theatre Charlotte this summer. Then Ron said, ‘Yeah, but I really want to fill the summer.' And I thought, OK, I could direct Hamlet."

Voila, the first Queen City Shakespeare Festival, continuing through July 28. Shakespeare Carolina now spans the two Carolinas for the first time. The company plans to do classically themed work in the fall and spring of 2007-'08 in Rock Hill before summering here with their new festival, again at Theatre Charlotte.

Wary Magdalene
Epic Arts, founded by spouses Stan Peal and Laura Depta, came roaring out of the gate in 2003-'04 with four productions. Acclaim came instantly. Exhaustion soon followed. Peal had a powwow with Depta, and they decided to shut it down.

"We had a big push at the start," Depta says, "which sort of came down tumbling around our ears very quickly. So we kind of stepped back and got ourselves in order. Got our board in order, got our paperwork in order, and decided that just the two of us—and still having to work for a living—we probably will only be able to do one or two shows a year. The idea, then, is to make them the best they can be."

Peal returned to the local stage last fall with the premiere of his new musical, The Expanding Sky, singing one of the leading roles. Now with Goddess and the Magdalene at Actors Theatre, July 12-28, both members of Epic Arts' power couple are back, with Depta in the title role.

The fantasy presents Mary Magdalene as the widow of Jesus. Magdalene is concerned with the direction of the Christian movement under Peter's leadership, and she heads off on a heroic quest to reclaim the Garden of Eden. Peal has extensively rewritten his script since it premiered in Minneapolis as Gospel of the Messiah Widow in 2001. Depta doubts that even her own mother will recognize the remount. The new Magdelene is a lot stronger, according to Depta. "I think it will be an interesting litmus test," she says. "If we can get enough people to see it, enough people aware of it, seeing how people do react to it will be a huge test of the audience in Charlotte, and what they are willing to explore and go see."

A Fringe Father Returns
Last month, George Brown celebrated the twentieth anniversary of innovative Theatre, ushering in the summer season on June 15-30 by reviving his hit production of Women Behind Bars at Spirit Square. He thinks that Charlotte's scene could stand much more controversy—and much more of his company's trademark cross-dressing kinkiness. Ten years—and two nightclubs—after folding innovative, Brown is ready to lead the way.

"Even companies that claim to be on the edge, they keep pulling back on what they're doing," Brown says. "They don't really push anything. They try to avoid controversy. I don't intentionally go for controversy, but I'm not willing to pull back. I'm kind of surprised by how conservative feeling this theater environment is right now. It's not even as open as it was when we quit producing."

Those wild years in the late 1980s, when iT was making its first big splash—with Psycho Beach Party, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All—would be hard to match. Certainly, Brown would find it impossible to reassemble the stellar performers and designers who dazzled audiences from 1987 to 1997. He can't afford them. The best are working at Children's Theatre nowadays, including actors Mark Sutton and Scott Helm, actresses Barbi VanSchaick and Nicia Carla, and ace costumer/scenic designer Johann Stegmeir. Not to mention Brown's onetime partner, Alan Poindexter, who now presides at ImaginOn as the Children's Theatre artistic director.

Instead, Brown's finding—and touting—a new generation of adventurers. If word of mouth or the sound of young urban professionals' shocked laughter didn't reach you during the run of Women Behind Bars, you can seek out a fresh iT fix this fall. Brown will be bringing Return to the Forbidden Planet to Spirit Square.

It's a musical takeoff on the 1956 sci-fi classic film Forbidden Planet, sporting rock hits from that era. Unlike most spoofs, it's not devoid of intellectual protein. Based very loosely on The Tempest, the original screenplay was strewn with Shakespearean quotes. Brown wanted to do this show before he decided to shut down his company in 1997. But Spirit Square was remodeling, going from three theater spaces to two, and rent was set to triple at Duke Power Theatre, Brown's venue of choice.

That's one thing Brown likes better about the current climate in Charlotte. He gives a rave review of Tom Gabbard, current president of the Blumenthal PAC, and his welcoming attitude toward fringe companies.

"Blumenthal is providing the space to us with no rental cost," Brown emphasizes. "So that's a heck of a gift. They get the ticket-handling costs, which they got before. It may be higher now, but not much. Tom really seems to be pushing to promote theater and local companies."

It's a push that Charlotte needs.

Perry Tannenbaum has been theater critic at Creative Loafing since 1987. He also writes for Backstages magazine.