After several years of sometimes turbulent transition, 2017 saw local theaters settling into a new normal.
Trustus Theatre co-founder (and former Workshop Theatre Board President) Jim Thigpen died at 75 in August, but Chad Henderson, whom Thigpen hired fresh out of college a decade earlier, continued into his third year as the theater’s leader and artistic director, making organizational and programming modifications designed to harken back to the organization’s early years. Meanwhile, Debra Leopard and Robert Richmond began their second years as the respective leaders of Lexington’s Village Square Theatre and the University of South Carolina’s Department of Theatre and Dance, while Shannon Scruggs began her third at Town Theatre, and Jami Steele Sprankle her fourth with Camden Community Theatre.
Other groups continued under existing leadership, but made physical changes. The Columbia Children’s Theatre moved downstairs to a larger first-floor space at Richland Mall. On Stage Productions relocated from West Columbia to the Old Mill in downtown Lexington. Chapin Theatre Company staged its season shows at American Legion Post 193 in downtown Chapin. And at year’s end, Workshop Theatre was eyeing a location in northeast Richland County for its 50th season.
WOW Productions attained nonprofit status. Robert Richmond’s USC-affiliated Full Circle Productions staged its first show in anticipation of doing professional tours to other campuses in other states. And the intentionally nomadic NiA Company continued to present socially conscious productions at assorted venues. The South Carolina Shakespeare Company is on the cusp of its 25th anniversary of presenting works by classic authors outdoors, but the uncertain timing of potential renovations in Finlay Park has left the group’s immediate plans in limbo.
That the litany of companies detailed above are able to thrive and present shows in a city of Columbia’s size still amazes me. No one writer could possibly make it to the dozens and dozens of productions staged annually, but I managed to see 32. With the disclaimer that I saw more within the city and fewer in the suburbs than usual, here are some of my favorites from 2017:
Best Updates of Classics
Hunter Boyle’s meticulous portrayal of Moliere’s finicky hypochondriac was a highlight of the South Carolina Shakespeare Company’s production of The Imaginary Invalid in Finlay Park, along with a modern translation from 17th century French into easily understood contemporary vernacular, and director Scott Blanks’ inventive comic analogs for the original’s extraneous musical interludes.
Cathy Brookshire’s artful condensation of Shakespeare’s text into a runtime of under an hour made Columbia Children’s Theatre’s touring edition of Romeo and Juliet more accessible to a young audience, and featured the titular teens snapping selfies while oblivious parents obsessed over their iPads. All roles were performed by only six actors, and the death of Mary Miles’ mad, scrappy female Mercutio was particularly poignant.
Best Rock Concerts (Disguised as Musicals)
Rock of Ages at Trustus allowed (freed? forced?) some of the city’s best voices to rock out to head-banging hits from the heyday of ’80s hair metal, accompanied by a live band on stage, while Town Theatre’s Million Dollar Quartet did the same for the ’50s, with the added treat of the actors jamming in character on guitar and piano. Charlie Goodrich’s spot-on recreation of Johnny Cash’s deep baritone, and Jeremy Reasoner’s histrionics at the keyboard as Jerry Lee Lewis were highlights, but Alex Cowsert takes top honors for his authentic portrayal of rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins, as well as doing solid work in the Rock of Ages ensemble.
Best Acid Trip
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play at USC’s Longstreet Theatre took the audience on a mind-bending journey into a post-apocalyptic near future, in which retelling episodes of The Simpsons evolved from a campfire pastime into ritualistic epic poetry and opera, simultaneously satirizing and paying homage to the development of myth-making and oral tradition.
Best Explorations of Sexual Identity
The back-to-back productions of Boy in the Side Door Theatre at Trustus, and Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet on the company’s Thigpen Main Stage tackled topical and timely subject matter with sensitivity and compassion, which are hallmarks of the Trustus at its finest.
Best Tragic Romance Based on a Disney Cartoon
Jeremy Reasoner’s expressive body language and soaring tenor negated the need for makeup beyond a few stylized smears to convey the misshapen features of the doomed Hunchback of Notre Dame, while Danny Harrington’s set captured the gothic grandeur of the titular cathedral. This Town Theatre production dropped the horror angle from old movies, and the comedy from the animated version, returning to the tragedy of the Victor Hugo novel, and was also the last performance, as gypsy king Clopin, of veteran character actor Will Moreau Goins, who passed away unexpectedly in November.
Best Subversive Indictment of Religion (Not Involving a Satan-Possessed Hand Puppet)
Director Abigail McNeely’s stark vision for her all-student production of A Bright New Boise in USC’s Benson Theatre contrasted the comic doldrums and minutiae of low-level jobs in retail hell with the darkly disturbing beliefs of fundamentalists prepping for the Rapture. Factoring in demonic hand puppets, however, the winner is Hand to God at Trustus, in which a profanely irreverent creation of felt and buttons castigated the shortcomings of both man and God — or was it all the invention of the troubled teen protagonist?
Best Season of Shows About Relationships
Workshop Theatre staged four works by acknowledged masters of differing genres: Neil Simon’s vintage Barefoot in the Park was a traditional rom-com about mismatched newlyweds; Marc Camoletti’s Don’t Dress for Dinner was a frenetic and sexy French farce; Neil LaBute’s edgy seriocomedy Some Girl(s) was a cautionary tale of the emotional damage we do in relationships; and A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia was a whimsical allegory about midlife malaise, using an adorable labradoodle — played by the very human actress Mary Miles — as both the cause and cure for marital and professional woes.
Her performance in Sylvia, in which Miles accurately and insightfully used human mannerisms as metaphors for canine behavior, along with her nuanced portrayals of Mercutio (above), of Boyle’s scheming ingénue daughter in Invalid, and a host of roles including an evil fairy and a scroungy goat in CCT’s madcap Commedia Sleeping Beauty, secures the nod for Miles as the performer whose work impressed me most this year.