About Josh Austin

As an arts journalist and theater junkie, Josh's passion happens to be theater criticism. Spoleto Festival USA ends Josh's year as a Graduate student earning his master's degree from Syracuse University in the Goldring Arts Journalism Program. Determined to be an arts writer or a dedicated nonprofit employee for a theater, Josh has made this past year all about writing and working with theaters. Since last July, Josh has taken on the roles of editor-in-chief of GreenRoomReviews.com (a regional criticism blog), regional editor and critic for Broadwayworld.com, editorial assistant for The Post-Standard (Syracuse's regional newspaper) and he happily interned at Backstage Magazine in New York City.

Not just toy action figures

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Review of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” at Pure Theatre.

Wrestlers can be so touchy, can’t they?

After all, millions watch them whine on TV every Monday night, lamenting over a championship loss or bitterly promising revenge.

Pure Theatre’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,”—a Piccolo Spoleto Festival presentation—gives a comically in-depth look at what lives behind the Lucha libres, groin-hugging tights and politically incorrect pseudonyms, like “The Fundamentalist.”

The Fundamentalist, mind you, is a radical Muslim. And when partnered with Che Chavez Castro, a Mexican border-jumper who leeches off the system (not my words) and also very anti-United States, the amoral marketing schemes of a Caucasian American pastime shine through.

At least, that’s what Everett K. Olson, the owner of THE Entertainment, thinks. “Wrestling fans don’t speak Spanish,” he says to Mace, one of the two wrestling personas adopted by the charming Michael Smallwood, when he suggests that can try to speak Spanish for one of his characters.

There’s a reason that this play, written by Kristoffer Diaz, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama in 2010. Diaz effectively and grippingly deconstructs a testosterone-laden sport and shows that these men—bulging muscles (though not always the case) and tattoos aside—are able to look past their own stereotypes. The only exception is Chad Deity, played by the rightfully holier-than-thou Christian Duboise, who embodies his character both inside and outside of the ring.

Still, it’s captivating to see what is behind the persona of wrestlers, moral pinings included. For Mace, wrestling is an art form, and he’s got a story to tell.

Director Sharon Graci’s steady hand throughout the production leaves just enough room for mystery to blossom throughout the performance. At times, Diaz’s text is completely predictable—diatribes on the less-than-sensitive racial ignorance in the biz give the piece little wiggle room, leaving us for hungering for a little more justice throughout—and Graci, along with the cast of six, presents a satisfying conversation.

The show is almost entirely done in what looks to be a 10-by-10 foot wrestling ring. By the time Act II comes round, body slamming and clotheslining are much appreciated. And, these guys throw each other around as savagely, and almost as believably, as the pros on TV.

The technical aspects of “Chad Deity” (designed by Charlie Thiel) are impressive. The gaudy music and self-glorifying videos that accompany a wrestler as he makes his entrance and the behind-the-ring trash talking are all documented on two screens.

It turns out that wrestlers have feelings too and they want to be seen as more than just plastic figurines.

Using everyday objects for music on command

I took my 13-year-old daughter to a contemporary music concert this weekend, one in the Spoleto Festival’s Music in Time series, organized by Resident Conductor John Kennedy. It featured a program of recent music by the New York City-based composer Nathan Davis, who creates conceptual soundscapes inspired by natural and not-so-natural phenomena. It might seem heady for a young teenager, but I see no reason why young people should not be exposed to this kind of music — before their tastes become calcified by age and prejudice.

—Adam Parker

BY ZOE ALESSANDRA DE LUCA-PARKER
Special to The Post and Courier

The first piece by Nathan Davis in the Music in Time series concert on Sunday was “Bells.” The composer told everyone to take his cell phones out and dial a number, then an access code (there were four, labeled Astral, Cryptic, Telegraphic and Tintinnabular) of your choice. While in most concerts the music comes from the stage, Music in Time makes music come from every direction, filling the whole room with different sounds.

The second piece, “Weather Rock,” had many different parts to it. It had a violin and a cello each with one thin string hanging off. The players pulled the strings to make amazing, stuttering sound a little like the wind. The percussionists used various objects, including rocks to make a very interesting gravelly sound.

“On speaking a hundred names” was a piece for a bassoon, one of my favorite instruments. It changed from something classical to something exploratory and seemingly accidental, but all very much done on purpose. The bassoon player, Ryan Wilkins, also played the same note in many different ways. I enjoyed this piece very much because I liked the effects created by the playing and by the technology that enhanced it.

The next piece was “Crawlspace.” This piece was the most fascinating to me because the composer took a microphone and placed it on the keyboard of his laptop computer, then took a camera and showed what he was doing. Sometimes he would hit the keys, moving the microphone around to different spots on the computer. The result was robot-sounding, and very dynamic, with many sounds created at once.

The last piece was called “Skryzp Skzryn.” It was a string quartet that started very high and, as the piece proceeded, went lower and lower. I liked this piece because it showed how the instruments change sound and the instruments’ range. All four of the instruments would do things at different times.

Nathan Davis makes music from sounds that are natural or created by common things. Another composer might be inspired by these sounds and attempt to transcribe them for instruments, but Davis uses the sounds themselves, along with regular sounds from instruments, sometimes transcribed electronically.

This show was definitely one of the most interesting shows I have ever been to. This show was for everyone to enjoy.

Costuming the Presidents

For the past 20 years, Julie Ziff has been behind the scenes of the Charleston theater community. More appropriately, behind the seams. For Ziff, costuming shows has become a passion since retiring from her day job in New York City years ago. Knowing that she was wanted to go into costuming, Ziff took theater classes at The New School in NYC and shipped down to Charleston to start her new career—one that keeps her incredibly busy. Currently, the designer is costuming two shows for the Piccolo Spoleto Festival at the Woolfe Street Playhouse, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Love, Loss and What I Wore.”  The good news, she may be busy, but it’s easy to find her: in the costume shop.

How did you get involved with this theatre?
Julie Ziff: I did a show for Keely Enright (founder and producing artistic director of The Woolfe Street Playhouse)  when we were downtown at the Midtown Theatre and then when they decided to start their own theater company, she asked me to come and work with them.

How did you get into costume design?
Ziff: Well I moved down here from New York City and I retired from my day job. And, right before I left I went to The New School and I took an acting class, a set design class and a directing class because I wanted to do costumes, but I thought I don’t even know the language. So, I took those classes right before I left and when I came down here, my younger daughter was in the theater so I started making costumes for the theater company she was with. I have done costumes for almost everyone in town and then I met Keely and Dave and started working for them full time.

What was the daily wear of the 19th century politician and their cohorts? What were people wearing back then?
Ziff: Suits. Well, you know, clothes haven’t changed too much over the years. So, it’d be a shirt and tie, and a vest and a jacket with maybe a hat.

What about the women?

Julie Ziff (right) and Keely Enright (left, producting artistic director of the Woolfe Street Playhouse).

Julie Ziff (right) and Keely Enright (left, producting artistic director of the Woolfe Street Playhouse).


Ziff: Well, a dress. I’m not sure if it was a bustle dress at that point or just a hoop skirt, but it was big clothes and a lot of layers, too.

Have you interpreted the costumes from the original Broadway show?
Ziff: We of course have that available as a resource and since it is such a recent show, it has more of an influence on us than if we were just creating it from scratch, but we always like to do our own thing.

So how did you do your own thing?
Ziff: Well, Keely, Josh [Wilhoit, Director of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson] and I met together and we talked about what the colors are, what is the feeling we want here? I meet all of the actors so I sort of know body sizes and what they look like, so it  springs from that. We think about what works in our theater because we’re not off Broadway, we’re not Broadway; we have a stage that isn’t deep.

What do you think is the biggest challenge when designing costumes?
Ziff: In this type of theater where you have maybe a four-to-six week run, you have to make the costume substantial enough so it will last the run but you can’t afford to make it substantial enough so that it’s really there forever.

Have you ever been inspired to veer away from a traditional costume and make it your own?
Ziff: Yes, they let me do that a lot. It’s very collaborative here.

What has been your craziest costume designing experience?
Ziff: Maybe “Urinetown” was one of our more creative from a costume standpoint because we just did all black, white and grey and we used red as the accent color. Everybody had something red.

What was the reasoning behind that?
Ziff: The set was a cinderblock outhouse that they were using and we just wanted to make it more dramatic. It was such a great musical and we wanted to be able to pull on the drama of it.

What is your favorite part about doing costume design?
Ziff: Every play is its own entity. You have about a month to research everything, decide what you’re going to do and then you have two weeks to make them and then they’re up for a month and you start all over. So, it’s very creative and very fun.

Playing with Puppets

Director Tom Morris likes playing with puppets. After winning a Tony Award for best director of play in 2011, Morris decided to implement the use of puppetry in his imaginative rendition of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” currently running at the Dock Street Theater as part of Spoleto Festival USA. For Morris, puppetry and Shakespeare came hand in hand as the bard tends to lay out imagery right in his text. After leaving Spoleto, the show (which made its United States debut here in Charleston) will head to New Haven, Conn. and continue its tour from there.

What is your favorite Shakespeare play?
Morris: That’s a good question. Well, it depends really. It’s like saying, “what’s your favorite outfit?” I have to say, I haven’t directed many Shakespeare plays, but I do use Shakespeare as a kind of medicine. Reading Shakespeare is like a fantastic, imaginative workout. This morning, I think my favorite Shakespeare play is “Twelfth Night.” That’s probably to do with being someone from Bristol who’s turned up in this beautiful, strange city, having a really exciting adventure. Though on other days, “Winter’s Tale” and I love, obviously “Midsummers Night’s Dream.” When you work on a play, you can get in the middle of it. I think the big tragedies are amazing—“King Lear,” that’ll do, that’s about five.

An article stated that you always base yourself in Shakespeare when working.
Is that true?
Morris: That’s sort of true. The kind of theater that I like watching and I try to make is theater that makes an appeal to the imagination. It’s a kind of theater that understands,

Tom Morris, director of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Spoleto Festival USA

Tom Morris, director of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Spoleto Festival USA.
Photo: Sam Frost/The Guardian

at first, principles are the foundation for everything. The meaning of the thing is created by the audience. It is by coincidence or not, the case, that in Shakespeare’s theater, they didn’t have very much scenery and the invitation to the imagination of the audience was explicit in the text…The kind of theater that I make, whether there are puppets in it or not, makes a rather similar invitation to the imagination of the audience. A puppet clearly requires the audience to give it life, otherwise there’s no story.

What was the inspiration behind using puppets in “Midsummer”?
Morris: I guess there were two inspirations. One was having made “War Horse” with Marianne Elliot and with Handspring Puppets. It seemed like a very exciting idea to try to do something else with something completely different. This particular play appealed because thematically it is engaged with changes of shape, metamorphosis, how the imagination operates. We know that in the dark you can see something and imagine it to be something else. All of those kinds of transformations, internal and external, connect in an interesting way with how a puppet works, because a puppet asks an audience to transform it. And also, the play is dreamlike in structure. We all know that our dreams are visually bizarre.

Your ideas of using puppets before, with “War Horse,” landed you a Tony Award. What was it like winning the coveted award?
Morris: It was very, very strange. I didn’t grow up in the culture of Tony’s. Tony’s are sort of a mythical object for me, so distant and far away and not anything I’d come anywhere near. The experience of that was a mark of joy for unpredictability and collaborative theater making…Witnessing the emotional impact that show has had on audiences, not only in Britain, but obviously in New York and now in Australia and soon in Germany and Canada, witnessing that emotional response is really the thing. A Tony is the label on top of that, which is fantastic because it’s a thing you put on your shelf. It’s a badge on the heart of the audience, and I think that’s why it got so many prizes because people felt the audience was profoundly moved by it.

Is there a difference between audiences in Britain and audiences in the United States?
Morris: For sure. We’ve done three performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and they’re coming off the end of a run in Bristol. The audiences were very different… very different ages of audience, very different city they’ve grown up in. We had a talk after the first performance here because the audiences here—two shows yesterday—are really excited about the show, and they were excited in very different ways. So the company has to allow the audience here to make it their own in a way that’s true for them. They respond to different things, find different things funny, different things moving. The timing shifts, the audience here has changed the timing of the show. It’s fascinating.

How did “Midsummer” fall into your hands?
Morris: I always loved it as a play because I am fascinated by how you go to sleep loving one person and wake up loving another person, which sometimes happens, and how we live our lives around that. So, that’s the underlying thing…We [Morris and Adrian Kohler, “War Horse” puppet creator] started talking about “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I started to understand and see the images that that text inspired for him. We decided that if we were going to work together that we were going to do something very different from “War Horse.” There would be no point in repeating that experiment. That would be of no interest of us. We knew it was going to be different, and we decided that we would try to do something that would combine lots and lots of different kinds of puppetry, and obviously dialogue. He [Kohler] was creating a visual text that would go along with Shakespeare’s text.