10/16-18/2020     Soul-stice Repertory Company 2.0


In 1992, a scrappy little repertory company grew out of Play Ground Theatre.  Soul-stice Rep had the goal of producing professional classic theatre in a repertory format and succeeded in giving Atlanta eleven seasons of plays freed from dusty academia and brought to new life on 7 Stages’ Backstage Theatre.  Sadly, I didn’t arrive in Atlanta until 1999, so I was only able to witness their final season. To my everlasting regret, I let the 1999 – 2001 seasons pass me by.


But then, I was totally bowled over by the 2002 season. Their pared down A Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed with seven chameleonesque actors, all of whom had a chance to play Puck (each one snarkily punching a time clock when it was their own “Goodfellow Time”).  This was followed by a little-seen Chekhov play, Ivanov, which showcased the talents of Soul-stice founders Jeff and Heidi Cline McKerley.


Since 2002 was about when I started writing these little reaction pieces (has it really been 18 years?), I was able to scrounge through my archives for my not-yet-senior-moment reactions.  Of Midsummer, I wrote “every moment was right, every movement focused, every character clear, and every word music.”  Of Ivanov, I wrote “Heidi Cline knows Chekhov, loves Chekhov, and is able to share that love with her audience.”


So, make no bones about it, I was overjoyed to hear of the Phoenix-like rise of Soul-stice Repertory 2.0.  Yes, the McKerleys are thumbing their talented noses at the pandemic’s toll on theatre and actually re-building their company now, when other companies are struggling to pay the rent, some even closing their doors forever.  Of, course the inaugural event is a series of Zoom readings – what else could it be? – and judging from the results, when Soul-stice gets back to live theatre, it will be an Atlanta force to reckon with, a theatrical joy, and an actor’s delight.

10/16/2020   A RAISIN IN THE SUN by Lorraine Hansberry, directed by Patdro Harris


Soul-stice 2.0 made the very smart choice to debut with Hansberry’s 1960 play about the Younger family.  It is, at root, a family drama in which a Life Insurance pay-out brings out the cracks and splinters.  Son Walter Lee wants to use the bounty to go into business as a liquor store owner.  But it’s Mother Lena’s money, and she wants to ensure daughter Beneatha can afford her college education. The rest she wants to use to buy a house.  For her part, Beneatha needs to choose between two suitors, George, who is comfortably well-off, and Joseph Asagai, an immigrant from Nigeria, who attempts to bring Beneatha back to her “true” African roots.   Once the money comes and the house is bought, the true cost of the move is revealed, and each character must come to terms with their own fears and strengths,  


This short summary in no way does justice to Ms. Hansberry’s nuanced portrayal of family, of race, of ambition, and of societal divides.  Nor does it do justice to her exquisite command of language and character.


But director Harris (who choreographed the recent Broadway revival of this play and assisted Kenny Leon on directing the film version of it) and his cast does do justice to the piece.  The Zoom platform lets the actors use their faces and eyes to add subtlety and depth to the characters, and the entire production comes across as a well-produced “radio play.”  Yes, a lot of action happens in our imaginations rather than on camera, but the very talented cast is able to “fill in the blanks” and make the story come alive.  Yes, a few technical snafus made the pace drag in parts – pauses between lines caused by Wi-Fi connection issues came across as late cues – but none really  undermined my appreciation of the production.


Enoch King brings a cocky charm to Walter Lee, making us wince at his single-minded pursuit of that money no matter the cost to his sister and his mother, but making his final “Do the right thing” moment credible and moving.  Naima Carter Russell is also compelling as Beneatha, as is Eugene H. Russell IV as Joseph, Tiffany Porter as Walter Lee’s wife Ruth, and Marlon Burnley as Bobo, Walter Lee’s good-for-nothing “partner.”


Not to beat around the bush, but A Raisin in the Sun was a lyrically beautiful experience, that only whet my appetite for what these actors had in store for us for the remaining readings.

10/17/2020   MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING by William Shakespeare   Directed by Jeff McKerley


Much Ado About Nothing is probably my favorite of Shakespeare’s “mature” comedies and has become more so as I’ve matured myself.  I’ve always liked the fine line it walks between potential farce and potential tragedy, the richness of its characters, and, especially, the (im)balance it paints between mature and immature love. 


For those who haven't read my past {many} Much Ado reviews, here’s a quick plot recap.  The Prince, Don Pedro, and his troops are returning home from suppressing a rebellion by his half-(bastard)-brother Don John.  They are invited to spend some needed post-battle R&R at the palatial estate of Leonato.  The Prince’s closest friends, Benedick and Claudio, become romantically entangled with Leonato’s niece and daughter, Beatrice and Hero.  Meanwhile, the not-quite-reconciled Don John plots to “get back” at his brother by foiling the romances.

Most of the play is concerned with the contrasting Benedick/Beatrice and Claudio/Hero romances.  Benedick and Beatrice have a long history of squabbling and “merry-war-making,” and resist their attraction as long as they can.  They are, after all, good-humored bachelor(ette)s, and shudder at the thought of losing their well-earned independence.  Claudio and Hero, on the other hand, are young and in lust-at-first-sight, sharing a tie that is shallow at best, easily foiled at worse. 

Throughout, we have a series of plot turns that rely on overheard conversations, deliberately arranged deceptions, and both good-natured and malevolent machinations.  Indeed, much ado does ensue over characters “noting” conversations that have been arranged for their eavesdroppings.

In this, more than any other play, the humor is based on character, on what we learn about their natures, on how we soon know them better than they know themselves.  And, in more than any other play, the appeal lies in how easily everything can go wrong, in how the “day is saved” not through any plot contrivance, but through the trust and affection the characters ultimately have for each other.

Mr. McKerley directs his cast well, keeping the language intact, the characters involving, the pace brisk.  Enoch King and Tiffany Porter once again play opposite each other, bringing to Benedick and Beatrice the same passion and charm and energy they brought to the Youngers in Raisin.  As the younger pair, Chris Hecke and Alexandria Joy are a study in goofy young lust, dripping passion for each other, over the top distraught at each unproven suspicion or slight.  (BTW the Zoom platform seemed to underscore how passive Hero is at the start – we see her, but she says very little – that is to say nothing – when the soldiers arrive.  This truly underscores the pure physicality of the attraction Hero and Claudio share.)


In other roles, Marlon Burnley is a princely Don Pedro, Brian Kurlander a subtle and brooding Don John, Theo Harness a never-befuddled Leonato, and Rivka Levin and Courtenay Collins simply terrific as Hero’s waiting women.  But the real comic kudos go to Matt Nitchie and Shelli Delgado as Dogberry and Verges.  They have terrific comic timing together, and tear into the characters with an energy that loudly mirrors the violence they do to the language with their malapropisms.


Much Ado is more “meaty” than the more farcical doings in Comedy of Errors or Midsummer Night’s Dream, but not quite as obscure or dark as the later As You Like It or Winter’s Tale.  It is literally in the “Goldilocks Zone” of the Shakespearean canon, light enough to generate its fair share of laughs and smiles, deep enough to stir an emotional wrench or two, warm enough to make it truly memorable, breezy enough to go down as smoothly as all that wine I nursed while watching.

10/18/2020   THREE SISTERS by Anton Chekhov    Directed by Heidi Cline McKerley


For the final Rep night, Heidi Cline McKerley once again shows her love for Chekhov as well as her skill in bringing his works to life.  Using the Sarah Rule adaptation of Three Sisters, she has directed a reading that clarifies the densely layered emotions of the piece and showcases a dacha full of brilliantly realized performances.


To give another dime-store summary of an intricate plot, the three Prozorov sisters (and their brother) live in a stately manor on the outskirts of a provincial village, miles and years from their happy childhood in Moscow.  They play hosts to a group of military men stationed nearby.  As in much of Chekhov, they love in vain, they regret their choices, they find accommodation to their many disillusionments.  The eldest, Olga, teaches at the local school, where she seems to be assuming more administrative duties than she wants.  Masha is unhappily married to Kulygin, a cheerful bear of a man who also teaches.  Masha longs for Vershinin, a Colonel dealing with his own unhappy marriage.   Irina, the youngest, starts out longing for purpose, for love, and, especially to recapture the joie de vivre of her childhood in Moscow.  She is being wooed by Solyony, a staff captain with an acerbic but sometimes poetic wit, and by Baron Tuzenbach, a man disillusioned with his life as a soldier.  The sisters’ brother Andrei, an aspiring scholar and musician, falls in love with and marries Natasha, who insinuates herself into the household with a cold air and a domineering way that leaves Andrei abandoning his aspirations for a life as a civil servant.  And let’s not forget Chebutykin, an army doctor who seems to have forgotten all his training,  He is a contemporary (and was a friend) of the Prozorov’s deceased father, a cynic who is most cynical about himself.


During the four acts of this play, so much actually happens – two (or is it three?) years, a birthday celebration, a marriage, two children, an affair stymied, a fire that destroys much of the town, unrequited yearnings and desires, abandonments, compromises, lost beards, and, ultimately, a fatal duel.  And yet, throughout, the sisters can only desperately pine for a more eventful life, for anything to equal those halcyon Moscow days when father was alive and tomorrows had so many possibilities.


Ms. McKerley leads her cast adroitly through the many layers of subtext and memory that make up the piece.  The humor, most of it self-mocking, runs through this reading as steadily (and deeply) as the Volga itself.  The characters, even with their sometimes interchangeable, often confusing, Russian names, remain distinct and compelling.  And the cast brings all their skills to bear on what comes across as a true performance rather than a simple reading.  As the sisters, Courtenay Collins (Olga), Kayce Grogan Wallace (Masha), and Shelli Delgado (Irina) are totally convincing as siblings, despite being of three separate ethnicities.  If Brian Kurlander (Andrei) seems so much older than the sisters, he nevertheless comes across as indeed the “baby brother,” showing due deference to his sisters, and total submission to Natasha, his wife.  As Natasha, Alexandria Joy starts off with much of that same passivity that defined her Hero, but soon (and quickly) shows she is more comfortable in a commanding role. 


As expected, Chris Kayser brings his usual “A” performance to Chebutykin, totally devoted to the sisters, wearing a smirk that seems to know some secret that he knows will come back and bite.  Matt Nitchie brings a Dogberry-esque charm and wit to Solyony that makes the character so much more compelling than the jerk he too often becomes in more straightforward performances.  Jeff McKerley is very good as Vershinin, as is Al Stilo as Kulygin, and Kathleen McManus as the nanny Anfisa.


I make the observation that the Zoom platform, with its character-labelled screens, keeps the occupants of the crowded scenes crystal clear.  At the same time, it metaphorically isolates them from each other, a subtle “Easter Egg” that I suspect Chekhov would enjoy.


Three Sisters was the perfect play with which to end this repertory weekend, and it showed that there is a definite place for classical theatre in Atlanta, even on Zoom.  It showed us a large group of artists who are able to deliver near-perfect performances with the barest minimum of rehearsal.  The Repertory format, in general, lets plays of different eras and different styles, “overlap,” in the sense that an actor’s performance in one piece can inform how we see them in another, how Dogberry’s word-mangling colors Solyoni’s snark, how Hero’s gentility informs Natasha’s overbearing command, how Walter Lee Younger’s intensity underscores Benedick’s focused pursuit of Beatrice. 


These three readings were an intense pleasure for me, and I so look forward to more!



     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #SoulStice2.0   #RaisinInTheSun  #MuchAdo  #ThreeSisters)

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