Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Halftime Report: "Red Death" Reviews

We are halfway through our run of "Red Death" for the Kansas City Fringe Festival, and people are saying some really great things about it. Last night, our show drew a huge crowd, and I was absolutely stunned, watching the line of people enter the theatre to see our show. It was a long line, and we had to hold the house. It's an amazing thing, knowing that people are eager to share in something you've helped create.

So here are a couple of reviews. And, of course, ticket information for our remaining three shows: https://kc-fringe.ticketleap.com/red-death/dates

Robert Trussell, Kansas City Star:

Those who have attended performances at KC Fringe though the years expect to see something unusual, but few of us have seen anything quite like “Red Death.”

This one-act chamber opera from composer Daniel Doss and writer Bryan Colley offers a concise 40 minutes of vivid gothic horror filled with impressionistic images. The show, directed by Tara Varney and choreographed by Amy Hurrelbrink, is almost as much dance theater as it is opera.

This adaptation of “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe tells the tale of Prince Prospero, who retreats to his castle for a night of revelry with his entourage and servants while a plague ravages the countryside.

According to the program, Colley’s libretto borrows not only from Poe, but from the Roman poet/philosopher Lucretius Carus, Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne and Ecclesiastes in the Bible, but I confess that I’m too meager a scholar to comment on Colley’s choices. I can say that his libretto is loaded with compelling images.

Doss’ lush score, performed by pianist Michalis Koutsoupides, is darkly romantic, often returning to a haunting waltz-time motif. The music is so compelling that you can easily imagine what it would sound like performed by a full orchestra.

Tenor Nathan Granner plays Prospero with Shakespearean flair and his voice, as usual, is mesmerizing. Soprano Devon Barnes is impressive as Prospero’s unnamed servant, whose perception of the futility of existence draws her magnetically toward death.

Many Fringe shows are bare-bones affairs but this one shimmers, thanks to a delicate, evocative lighting design by Shane Rowse and elegant costumes designed and created by Varney and her collaborators. A cadre of dancers create dreamlike stage pictures.

In essence, this piece is a 19th-century meditation on death, but the combination of music, dance, creative lighting and inventive costumes will linger in the viewer’s memory.


Detailer, KCStage.com:

A very strong performance of an effectively creative adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.

I am not an opera fan, but this presentation could convert me. First, it’s in English, it began with the spoken word, and the company gave out printed lyrics for those of us not used to listening to opera.

But the printed words weren’t needed to understand Nathan Granner. His voice was strong and clear, and his character was compelling. Gorgeous singing. That alone was worth the time.

Devon Barnes had a lovely voice when singing low and soft, but some of her higher sections had a piercing quality to me. Her physical reactions, particularly to the Uninvited Guest, were emotionally effective. Her acting came across as truthful, the emotions coming from within.

Bryan Colley’s libretto and Daniel Doss’s music were quite impressive. They captured the story succinctly, getting us in the spirit, enjoying the characters, and building to the climax. The entertainment at the ball provided emotional variety, and gave the individual dancers a moment in the spotlight, which they deserved. Michalis Koutsoupides accompanied with just the right volume, not drowning out the voices as too often happens in musical productions.

Tara Varney’s direction and Amy Hurrelbrink’s choreography created a powerful experience. The movement was natural, provided a variety of stage pictures that evoked emotion and added visual interest, and covered the audience well. The dancing enhanced the mood and the story, and it gave a fascinating visual behind Nathan’s powerful singing. Dancers Chelsea Anglemyer, Josh Atkins, Amy Hurrelbrink, Tyler Parsons, and Tiffany Powell blended beautifully as an ensemble, and also embodied unique personalities. They listened actively and carried out business that made the scenes realistic without pulling focus. The choreography allowed each of them moments to be featured. At one point their frantic, almost jerky, movements gave the impression of many more dancers than there were. This was an effective contrast to the fluidly slow movements, particularly when Coleman Crenshaw as the Uninvited Guest drew attention merely by his intense stage presence.

Bryan Colley designed a sparse setting that allowed Shane Rowse’s lighting to set the mood. One window lighted in red in one corner, a white-lighted clock in the diagonal corner, a bench with just enough props to give the dancers realistic business on one side and allow them ways to create pictures on different levels—that was perfect to set the tone and give space for the story to unfold. The patterned lighting changes were very effective, and the white light always pinpointed the main action. Tara Varney punched the ending with an
evocative image.

ChaimEliyahu, KCStage.com:

The Fringe, bless its heart, brings us lots of work-in-progress: artists taking advantage of the chance to stage new work, to see how new scripts play before live audiences: simply staged, cut to suit the Festival's crowded schedule — gems in the rough. But here's one that I'd call a gem, cut and polished, all its facets working together: "Red Death" is an operatic diamond.

I blame opera’s social trappings for burying its roots as popular entertainment. Bugs Bunny parodies, if not direct personal experience, leave us with nightmare fantasies of being trapped in swollen Wagnerian productions that just won't end. Never fear! "Red Death" packs its powerful punch in record time: I clocked Friday's opening performance at just 32 minutes.

This will leave you time to admire Bryan Colley's libretto, available on the "Red Death Lyrics" sheet on a table by the Off Center Theatre door. Its story is adapted mainly from Edgar Allan Poe's familiar "Masque of the Red Death, with credited infusions from more esoteric sources (Lucretius, Montaigne and Ecclesiastes). This gem is set by composer Daniel Doss and brought to brilliant musical life by two outstanding singers — tenor Nathan Granner and soprano Devon Barnes — with pianist Michalis Koutsoupides filling in for the orchestra.

But opera is the original multi-medium, and director Tara Varney, ably supported by choreographer Amy Hurrelbrink, has marshaled an artistic team that has these three musicians surrounded and outnumbered. Varney's family, with Hurrelbrink's help, has costumed a cast that includes five fine dancers. Chelsea Anglemyer, Josh Atkins, Tyler Parsons and Tiffany Powell join the choreographer herself in animating that silent threat that's inspired Granner's Prince Prospero to attempt their protection as guests in his party. Dance sequences flow smoothly into and out of the singing as the dancers support and advance the action. Actor Coleman Crenshaw needs no words — only his sinister, masked presence — to spoil the fun as the Uninvited Guest. But no spoiler alert is needed: even if you've somehow missed reading Poe, the title itself reminds us of the inevitable.

Colley has brought his economical art not only to the libretto, but also to the stage setting, subtly enlivened by Shane Rowse's dramatic lighting. The lyrics sheet spells out his scheme rather more distinctly than it has felt in performance. Varney's direction brings all these elements and actors together in a performance that embodies the essential power of opera.

Which you experience this week, quite cheaply and without any dress code. You will not leave the theater humming any of Doss's tunes. But you will be impressed by what a company of hard-working artists can do with a little space and a little of your time as their audience.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fringeful: Why I'm Participating in Four Productions at Fringe this Summer

Really, it's not like I said yes to every project all at the same time. But, somehow, here I am, participating in four shows at Fringe this year.

I knew we were doing "Red Death," of course. It's been in the works for a very long time. (In fact, Bryan talked to Daniel about it about ten years ago, but the project got pushed to the back burner, like they often do.) Then, in February, after a staged reading of a short play I wrote, Kevin King, having recently seen me in "Carrie the Musical," asked if I'd be part of the revolving cast of his show, "Bad Auditions." He said he'd work around the show schedule of "Red Death," so no worries.

Last fall, I started as a co-director of an incredible ensemble called Project Pride, an LGBTQIA and straight, allied teen theatre group, started by Coterie Education Director Amanda Kibler. Our devised-by-the-teens show, "Queerios," was in March, and Amanda decided to re-mount it for Fringe.

So that's three shows.

Then, I heard MoJo Invocations was looking for submissions for their production, called "Free to Be KC," based on the soundtrack of my childhood, "Free to Be, You and Me." I submitted a story-poem about tolerance and acceptance, "The Cute Little Woman, Young Jacob, and Me." They're including it in their show.

Four shows, one Fringe, one exhausted, but happy, Tara.

"Red Death": https://www.facebook.com/events/818883604788578/  Ticket info: http://kc-fringe.ticketleap.com/red-death/
Tara Varney's photo.

Project Pride presents: Queerios! "Things are getting better for queer kids, and it’s because of gutsy people like the teenagers who wrote this. A ticket to Queerios is a 2-for-1 deal: a scandalously charming hour of theater and an exhibition of contemporary queer youth courage." (Camp Magazine)http://kc-fringe.ticketleap.com/project-pride-presents-queerios/

The Coterie’s new Project Pride will perform at KC Fringe. Appearing: members (from left) Josh Metje, 15, Blue Springs; Claire Davis, 18, Lee’s Summit; Christian Williams, 17, Kansas City, North; Leanna Varney, 15, KC; and Leah Brownlee, 18, KC.

Here's an article about "Bad Auditions." I'm thinking of adding some more hyphens to my personal "title." (I will be in the Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday performances.)  http://www.examiner.com/article/bad-auditions-mixes-comedy-with-audience-participation-for-fringe-festival

Kevin King slates "Bad Auditions" for his Kansas City Fringe Festival entry for 2014.

"Free to Be KC": http://kc-fringe.ticketleap.com/free-to-be-kc/

Photo: Did you know that the upcoming production of Free to Be KC at the Phosphor Studio (KC Fringe!) features the works of many talented artists such as Tara Varney, Heidi Van, Martin Buchanan (but, really his son), and a character inspired by Alli Jordan!!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The KC Star's article on Project Pride presents: "Queerios!"

I am so proud of these young people, and I am so grateful to be part of this project. They are inspiring, generous, and compassionate. The future is in good hands.

The full article: http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/article726366.html

The Coterie’s new Project Pride will perform at KC Fringe. Appearing: members (from left) Josh Metje, 15, Blue Springs; Claire Davis, 18, Lee’s Summit; Christian Williams, 17, Kansas City, North; Leanna Varney, 15, KC; and Leah Brownlee, 18, KC.
The Coterie’s new Project Pride will perform at KC Fringe. Appearing: members (from left) Josh Metje, 15, Blue Springs; Claire Davis, 18, Lee’s Summit; Christian Williams, 17, Kansas City, North; Leanna Varney, 15, KC; and Leah Brownlee, 18, KC.JILL TOYOSHIBA/The Kansas City Star


Project Pride will perform during the KC Fringe festival — 5 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m July 25 — at the Off Center Theatre in Crown Center. Tickets are $10. Call KC Fringe at 816-359-9195 or visit KCFringe.org.

The festival runs Thursday through July 27 at various venues. Read more about it in Thursday’s Preview section.
Project Pride meets in November, December and January to create its shows. Auditions are in October. The troupe is open to all LGBTQIA (the I stands for intersex; the A for “allied” or asexual) and straight teens who are supportive of the community, in grades eight-12. No previous theater experience is needed. Interested? Email Amanda Kibler at akibler@coterietheatre.org.

Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/article726366.html#storylink=cpy

Monday, July 14, 2014

"Red Death" on KCUR

We had the great fortune to be contacted by the beautiful and talented Julie Denesha from KCUR, wanting to do a story on our play. She's an absolute doll.


All photos by Julie Denesha.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Rehearsing "Red Death"

This has been an unusual rehearsal process. For various reasons, like schedules and location availability, we were forced to rehearse the dancers separately from the singers for a long time. Also, early on, the dancers were only available to rehearse when I had to work. Amy Hurrelbrink, who has been in several of our past shows (Lingerie Shop, KHAAAAN! The Musical, Sexing Hitler, Chicken Heart) is the choreographer for this show, and I trust her, and the dancers, completely. But I felt disconnected. And she felt disconnected, because although she had rehearsal recordings of the music, for a long time, they did not include the vocals, so it was hard for her to know what was instrumental, and when people were going to be singing. Of course, that's a detail that's rather important, but there was no way to reconcile that until after the singers knew the music.

Also, Amy killed Tiffany and Josh.

Fortunately, everyone healed nicely.

At the same time, it dawned on me that the script was not the script. This is opera; the script is the music. Daniel Doss was furiously composing, but of course that takes time, and at some point, it occurred to me that I couldn't really start my job of directing until after he was done.

Daniel showing Devon something very technical that I most likely do not understand. Opera singers peak mostly Italian, even when they're speaking English.
So I had to put my time into other things, like designing and building costumes.

And borrowing juggling balls from my brother.

We've finally been able to transition into having the entire cast in the same place at the same time. And we discovered that we had to alter some of the pieces in order to fit the puzzle together. There's no picture on the box to guide us in this process.

Look! A singer is singing and dancers are dancing, IN THE SAME ROOM.

The last couple of rehearsals have been an exciting, and sometimes frustrating, time of discovery. Collaboration really gets my creative heart pumping, and everyone is throwing out ideas to try. Some work, some don't, but the point is, everyone gets invested in the story we're telling. It's exhilarating.

And sometimes, silly.

"Red Death" will be presented at Off-Center Theatre, in Crown Center, as part of the Kansas City Fringe Festival.

The cast:
Nathan Granner
Devon Barnes
Chelsea Anglemyer
Josh Atkins
Amy Hurrelbrink
Tyler Parsons
Tiffany Powell
Coleman Crenshaw

Show dates and times:
Friday, July 18 at 8:00 pm
Saturday, July 19 at 3:30 pm
Monday, July 21 at 7:30 pm
Wednesday, July 23 at 7:30 pm
Thursday, July 24 at 6:00 pm
Saturday, July 26 at 9:00 pm

Tickets are $10, with a one-time purchase of a Fringe button for $5. (Keep the button! It gets you into all Fringe events.) Tickets (and buttons) are available at the box office, or you can order tickets online: http://kc-fringe.ticketleap.com/red-death/