News Column

Two Charlotte theater troupes come back

August 5, 2014

By Lawrence Toppman, The Charlotte Observer



Aug. 05--Neither Charlotte Shakespeare nor Queen City Theatre Company would ever do "Brigadoon," but they're living a version of it.

Both went into the mist in 2013, after many seasons of year-round production. Both re-emerged this summer to do two plays, with the second ones coming up this month: Charlotte Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" starts Thursday at Booth Playhouse, and QCTC's "The Performers" begins Aug. 21 at Duke Energy Theater. After this, both will vanish from sight again -- one until 2015, one for an indefinite time.

Charlotte Shakespeare

The 9-year-old troupe has been a labor of love for co-founder Elise Wilkinson, and audiences have begun to love back: The summer's first production, "Love's Labor's Lost" outdoors on The Green, drew the second-largest crowds in its history, and Wilkinson says the company now serves 7,000 people a year with shows and workshops.

No other local company has a "pay what you can" policy all the time. Of course, that means some playgoers feel free to pay nothing. The company has usually raised its $75,000 budget through grants and donations, but Wilkinson says "Measure for Measure" -- probably Shakespeare's most complex and least obviously funny comedy -- will be a challenge, partly because it'll bring the company's first three-week run in Booth Playhouse.

She has imported Los Angeles director Tiger Reel, a friend for 23 years, to create a production set during the blaxploitation movie era of the 1970s. Reel thought of Times Square in pre-Giuliani New York, where peep shows and X-rated movies held sway near Broadway, and applied that vision to Shakespeare's tale of a politician who makes an offer to a nun: Have sex with him, or he'll execute her brother. (Yes, it's a comedy. For the Bard, that means nobody likable dies, and marriages ensue.)

"Blaxploitation movies were about representatives of morality who weren't really moral and a rough kind of justice being served in the end," says Reel. "That happens in this play, too.

"Shakespeare writes a lot about 'bawds' in this play, and audiences may not get the full impact of that idea nowadays. So we're portraying the prostitute and pimp, Mistress Overdone and Pompey, in a 'Superfly' style to make that clear."

After "Measure," Charlotte Shakespeare will hibernate until spring. "If you have limited resources, the smart thing to do is use those for the summer festival," says Wilkinson.

"His plays have big casts, and two full-scale shows are all we can manage right now. We've thought about doing a fall show the school system could see, because there's not a lot of Shakespeare in the schools.

"Insurance went up a thousand bucks this year. So did audiovisual costs. My goal is for us to be self-sustaining. But if in a couple of years the resources don't increase ... who knows?"

Queen City Theatre

Co-founders Glenn T. Griffin and Kristian Wedolowski took time off last year to search for a permanent home. But fans who emailed -- "some nice, some angry that we were not producing anything," jokes Wedolowski -- made it clear the company needed to sustain its public profile.

It opened "Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight" last month and sold out the first weekend, a rarity for QCTC. Now "The Performers," David West Read's romantic comedy set during the Adult Film Awards in Las Vegas, concludes the two-production revival. (Its short Broadway run in 2012 starred Henry Winkler, Alicia Silverstone and Cheyenne Jackson.)

"There's a lot of innocence inside this dirty taboo world," says Griffin, who is directing. 'The New York Times (called it) 'an early Neil Simon farce with an X-rated vocabulary.' "

"Sometimes we judge people by what they do," says Wedolowski. "How can someone be intimate with another person when they have sex for a living?"

QCTC has continually done plays about stereotyping, whether by age, class, race or especially gender preference. This mini-season brought nothing as heavy as "Bent" -- "comedies work better in summer," notes Griffin -- but kept the company visible for an eighth go-round.

Now, says Wedolowski, he and Griffin have feelers out to two entrepreneurs who may be willing to partner with them. The financial strength of "Things You Shouldn't Say," Wedolowski believes, "shows an investment in this company will be a good one." He added that real estate agents are looking for spaces that could be converted to a 120-seat theater for which QCTC would be principal tenant.

Both Wilkinson and Wedolowski said Blumenthal Performing Arts has been supportive. Though Queen City doesn't want to spend a whole season again at Duke Energy Theater, Griffin's "willing to do another one-off production there."

"We have done theater all our lives, regardless of careers and personal lives," says Wedolowski. "Our potential demographic is everyone -- old, young, gay, straight, all races -- and we can't walk away from that."

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(c)2014 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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