Trials of a One Picked Wonder

Every artist wants their 15 minutes of fame (after all, Andy Warhol did promise we all would have our moment), but the trick for an artist is to extend that 15 minutes into a career.  Artists languish in a basement of doubts, menial employment and lingering questions until the elevator doors open and the ride to the penthouse begins.  Then it happens…the big break comes, but just as quick it fades like smoke in the atmosphere.  What must it be like to be a one hit wonder – to reach the glass ceiling of success, crack it, but not burst through to superstardom?  It is a question plenty in the entertainment industry know the answer to, and thanks to clever storytelling of Christopher Shinn, audiences at the Vineyard Theatre now know what it is like as well. 

Picked is a story about Kevin, a young actor poised for success when a famous, eccentric director casts him as the lead in his next big-budget Hollywood movie.  Known for making John Woo-esque big action flicks, John (the director) is looking for his next film to really connect with the audience on a deeper, expressive level, and for this he wants a virtual unknown actor to play the protagonist – enter Kevin an actor that has only had bit roles, but seems to project a sincere aura and is not concerned with fame.  John proposes a sketchy synopsis of a sci-fi film that takes place in space with the lead character basically battling himself as the lead and the nemesis are the same person.  Kevin agrees and then undergoes a battery of brain wave scans to uncover deep issues that he struggles with physiologically and emotionally.  The script is then written based on John’s findings.  As production of the film begins, John brings in Nick to play the part of the Kevin’s evil other half.  Kevin and Nick appear to develop a bromance that is abruptly put to a halt by Nick once production of the film ends, leaving Kevin baffled.  After the successful release of the film, Nick is working consistently, but Kevin cannot book a gig.  The lack of work and the bewilderment that comes with it makes Kevin estranged from girlfriend Jen, himself and eventually with the entertainment business.  At the end of the play Kevin had found that like the character he played, he had grappled with his own sense of self and was left with lingering questions, while forging into a new frontier.

Playwright Christopher Shinn did put together a brainy script, but perhaps that is the problem lurking deep within Picked – it is too clever.  As the production ended, the applause that came from the seats was slow and while walking out the Vineyard Theatre, the audience seemed more perplexed than entertained.  Like the protagonist who underwent extreme research, it appears that audience members were a litmus test for the playwright and the director – the hypothesis: how would a group of people viewing a play react to numerous loose ends.  There are multiple subplots of the Picked that were not fully developed, Kevin and Nick’s bromance, John’s issues with intimacy, Kevin’s emotional neediness with men, the lack of a deeper connection with Jen as well as Nick’s collapse. 

Perhaps Shinn outsmarted the audiences by forcing them to actually think, or perhaps he overestimated the need for heady, intellectual drama.  Even with these holes in the story, the cast does a wonderful job pushing through these gaps to deliver introspective performances.  I was able to identify with each of these characters – people struggling to balance their human, emotive instincts with their digital/progressive selves.   And that is what makes Picked worth going to see, it is not about the questions Shinn does not answer, it is about the questions you will have for yourself after viewing it.  Picked is definitely gets my vote – it is mature, conscious theatre.

Photos:  Carol Rosegg

Time Traveling With The Scottsboro Boys

All aboard!  This train is travelling to Dixie, but not the “Hooray Dixie Land” sung in lyrics, it is Jim Crow’s Dixie that is the subject matter of this musical.  The Scottsboro Boys, playing at the Vineyard Theatre, is a portal into a time in America’s history that has been forgotten.  It almost seems peculiar that a story as heavy as the Scottsboro Boys trial,  a series of trials in which nine black youths were tried and convicted of raping two white women, would end up on stage as a musical, but it is the musical numbers that makes the subject matter more palatable.  The musical takes on some of elements of minstrel show and is a nonstop rollercoaster of emotions.  At times I was offended, other times I was brought to the brink of tears and at certain times I could not help but to burst with laughter, regardless of what I was feeling I was always entertained.

I enjoy viewing productions in which the actors play multiple roles because the audience gets a true glimpse of the actors’ range.  The cast with exception of Sharon Washington (the omnipresent female figure) play several parts and the character changes are as smooth as the choreography. 

Each character was thoroughly developed and the passion for the material was reflected in the actors’ performances. Another interesting aspect of the production is the cast with exception of the Interlocutor, brilliantly portrayed by two-time Tony award winner John Cullum, are all black.   Watching black actors playing white southerners so convincingly proved the level of depth and talent that illuminated the stage.  Lights make the actors come alive, but it is the actors that make the stage come alive.   

When the curtain opens with a woman waiting to get on a bus then the mood suddenly becomes electric as Mr. Bones, Mr. Tambo and the Scottsboro boys make a raucous entrance down the aisle steps to the stage for the first musical number “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey.”    The set is basically comprised of chairs and wooden planks that are seamlessly transitioned by the cast to suit a scene or musical number, and it is the musical numbers that are the real treat of this production.  “Financial Advice” was a scream, “Make Friends with the Truth” was equally as hilarious, “You Can’t Do Me” was compelling, but my favorite was “Electric Chair.” 

The thought of turning capital punishment into a song and dance may appear to be reaching, but reaching is exactly what John Kander, Fred Ebb and Susan Stroman did and the result is a thrilling tap sequence that Bojangles and Gregory Hines would have been proud of.  From the opening number to the closing one, the songs and choreography transformed The Scottsboro Boys from experimental theater into a rootin’ tootin’ time.  I was completely mesmerized.

Bold, contemporary and filled with vigor, The Scottsboro Boys sizzles with electricity, hats off to the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb and Susan Stroman.  I also salute the cast; they worked like a well-oiled machine oozing with experience and raw soul.  In the wake of President Obama’s historic ascension to the highest office in our country, it may be easy for some, the youth in particular, to overlook this nation’s turbulent history with regards to race.  The most important component about The Scottsboro Boys is that it builds a bridge between the past and present and through quality art like this production an interest can be sparked inspiring us to learn more about the countless stories that prelude the day Rosa Parks decided not to go to the back of the bus.

Photos:  Carol Rosegg