Center Stage’s “X’s and O’s” tackles the controversies of football

By: Mia White, Staff Writer

To many Americans, football season is a yearly ritual filled with a mixture of elation and excitement. To others, it is a mystifying, or even brutal, obsession. Center Stage’s “X’s and O’s explores the game through combination of fiction and interviews, creating an experience that will appeal to an audience that extends beyond football fanatics to the casual, or even sports disinterested, theater-goer.

The idea for the play was born just a few days after former football player Junior Seau committed suicide in 2012. Playwright KJ Sanchez and co-creator Jenny Mercein (daughter of an NFL running back) met at a party and realized they both loved football. Hoping to examine the controversies of the sport on stage, they soon received a co-commission from Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Center Stage to make their idea come to life.

This play is unusual, in that draws from interviews and also presents fictional narratives.  The play presents commentary through monologues or conversations that characters have with one another. The beauty of the play lies in its variety. It brings stories together in a way that is incredibly thought-provoking. Rather than arguing for or against football, “X’s and O’s” leaves the viewer feeling more knowledgeable, but no less sure of what the future of the game should be. The script flows seamlessly from one idea to the next, and there is a great balance of humor, tragedy and statistics.

The play explores many ideas surrounding the game, including it’s history and the passion that it draws from its fans. The central controversy is that of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). A condition caused by repetitive impacts of the brain, CTE presents symptoms similar to those of dementia, including erratic behavior and memory loss. The play also touches on race and socio-economic background, the connection of football to the American dream, and football as a means of escape from a life of poverty.

The acting in the play was on point throughout. Since the play included many different perspectives, there were far more characters than the six actors in the show. There were voices of retired players, doctors who study donated brains from deceased players, and diehard fans. It was impressive how the actors often changed roles in an instant, simply by pulling a jersey over their head, carrying themselves in a distinct way, or changing their patterns of speech. Occasionally it felt a little disorienting to have so many characters, but the actors did an excellent job of creating individuality.

One particularly powerful scene occurs at the end of the play, when three family members of CTE affected players tell their stories. Like the rest of the play, this scene is, powerful by cumulative effect. The distinct stories would be heartbreaking on their own, but the impeccable acting of Eddie Ray Jackson, Miralee Talkington, and Jenny Mercein, merges with the script to reveal the overlap between the stories, and lifts them into the sphere of tragedy.

Ultimately, the play was enjoyable. It touches on thought provoking ideas of football which are a key part of American culture. There is no doubt that any viewer would appreciate the excellent acting and informative script, and will go home with a richer understanding of the game.

Pictured (left to right): Anthony Holidays, Eddie Ray Jackson. Photo credit: Richard Anderson

“The Secret Garden” blooms at Center Stage

The Secret Garden.

Center Stage’s production of “The Secret Garden” is an emotional and energetic production bursting with talented actors who bring the script to life. Most viewers are familiar with the children’s book published by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1910, and adapted many times to stage and screen. Center Stage’s production is a musical, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon (sister of Carly Simon).

The story follows a girl, Mary Lennox, who is orphaned by a cholera epidemic and must travel from India to the wilds of the English countryside. There she lives with her uncle, Archibald Craven, who is still in the throes of grief from the death of his wife some tens year prior. Mary discovers a secret garden that once belonged to her aunt but has since been forgotten, and with the help of her newfound friends she brings back life to the garden and the Craven household. Ultimately, it is a story about how love and bravery overcome in the face of overwhelming grief and trauma.

One of the greatest strengths of the show is an ensemble of actors who consistently work to build their characters through solid acting and polished singing. Given that all the actors in the show had extensive musical experience, it is unsurprising that the singing was very consistent throughout the show. This production brings in a cast that is almost entirely new to Center Stage, and all actors stepped confidently into their roles. The children in the show were impressive, with Mary (Caitlin Cohn) and Dickon (Cameron Bartell) being especially captivating. Cohn embodied the Mary from the book, building a petulant, wild but incredibly compelling protagonist for the show. Bartell, though his stage presence was minimal, created a sense of Dickon’s playful wisdom in his interactions with other characters.

The only minor weakness in the show came not from the production, but from the script. Though the two women who adapted it are clearly immensely talented, the focus of the script was purposely shifted to the interpersonal journeys of the adults to create a broader appeal. While the development of the characters was effective, it took away from time that might have been spent with the immensely talented younger cast members, building the children’s characters and increasing the impact of the story’s conclusion. Still, Mary firmly holds her place as the protagonist, and it is her fiery and “quite contrary” personality that drives the progression of the plot.

The set for the show is simple but effective, using the torn pages of a book as a color changing backdrop, and a rising and falling platform in the middle of the stage as a multi-use prop. Small trees or pieces of furniture were occasionally brought on stage, but it was the ghostly presence of actors that created a scene. A surprising amount of the show is set inside, and so it was a slight disappointment not to see more flora. Nonetheless, the set effectively creates changes in atmosphere and space to enhance the events taking place on stage.

The choreography for the show helped to build the characters’ development, effectively revealing their varied personalities and states of mind. It also created a strong sense of setting. The simplicity of the set meant that between scenes, there were only minor changes that occurred. One particularly effective example of choreography occurred during Mary’s nighttime wanderings of the house, when the presence of many adult cast members standing in picture frames created a feeling of the expansive loneliness of the house.

Overall, Center Stage’s performance of “The Secret Garden” is a wonderful production of a timeless story. The ghostly presence of dead characters and the vibrancy of those still living built a strong sense of tension throughout. It is worth seeing, especially if you are a fan of the book. The show runs on the Main Stage through November 29. Tickets are available on Center Stage’s website https://tix.centerstage.org or at their box office.

Spotlight on Center Stage’s 2015-16 season 5 

The fall always brings excitement to Baltimore’s theater scene, as local venues begin their new seasons and announce the shows to come. This season, Center Stage has a diverse range of literary and contemporary shows. Whether you’re a sports per- son, a Shakespeare buff or an Austenite, Center Stage has a show to appeal to your interests.

“Pride & Prejudice” (September 11 – October 11)

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The first show of the season is a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice.” Most of you have probably seen at least one adaptation of the classic romance between the fiery Elizabeth Bennett and the aloof William Darcy. Maybe you read, or at least studied, the original text in high school.

Christopher Baker wrote this stage version, trimming characters and subplots where necessary, and adding a contemporary soundtrack that echoes Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.” In an article published in the Baltimore Sun, director Hana S. Sharif maintained that despite some changes, the adaptation keeps Austen’s “voice” and comedy. It’s no surprise that tickets for this show are going quickly, so act fast if you want to catch it before the run ends on October 11.

 “The Secret Garden” (October 30 – November 29)

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“The Secret Garden,” another literary show, follows “Pride & Prejudice.” This show is a Tony-nominated musical adaptation by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon. It follows the story of Mary, an orphaned girl who moves from India to England, where she lives with a distant and grieving uncle. Eventually – no spoilers here – she discovers a locked and secret walled garden to escape from her desolate daily life. Given the absence of parents in this classic story, it is bound to be a sad show. Nonetheless, it’s worth checking out, especially if you enjoyed the book or movie as a child.

“X’s and O’s” (November 13 – December 20)

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The season makes a big shift with its next show, “X’s and O’s,” which is a moral exploration of the sport of football. A joint commission with Berkeley Repertory Theater, the show is built around interviews with real players, families and fans. It challenges the viewer to consider the increasingly pressing questions regarding the dangers of the sport, but not without acknowledging the power of the game. Whether you are a sports fan who rarely attends theater, or a theatergoer who couldn’t care less about football, why not see how this show can change the way you think about theater and sports?

“As You Like It” (January 15 – February 14)

After a thoroughly modern show, Center Stage will return to the most classic of theater: Shakespeare. “As You Like It” follows Rosalind and Orlando through banishment, mistaken identity and romance all in the pastoral surroundings of the forest of Arden. It includes lots of witty rapport as well as the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech. This production of the traditional comedy, however,takes a new route away from the typical Shakespearean male casting to an all-female cast. Get your tickets to see how the gender dynamics transform the impact of this classic work.

“Detroit ’67” (April 8 – May 8)

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The final production of the season will be performed at the Mainstage Theater at Towson University. In 1967, a brother and sister host parties in their basement following the death of their parents. With the backdrop of Motown music, and the increasing social tension of the late sixties, this play explores the highly relevant subjects humanity, race and family, making it a strong finish to the 2015- 16 season.

And all at fairly affordable prices. Though you may think that professional theater is outside your measly student budget, remember that Center Stage works hard to make their productions accessible. This means that you can attend big, professional productions at relatively affordable prices. Catching the cheapest tickets can be tricky, so consider joining their mailing list so you are notified when tickets go on sale. If you are in the 18-34 age bracket, look into the GoPass, which offers tickets to all five shows in a season for an incredibly low rate of $49.

Keep an eye out in future issues of The Post for reviews of Center Stage productions.

Find out more about tickets on

www.centerstage.com/tickets.

Photos courtesy of  Dean Alexander

Center Stage’s Amadeus is Dynamic, Visually Rich

By Mia White

Center Stage’s Amadeus is one of the more ambitious productions that the playhouse has put on in recent years. Dynamic and visually rich, the play has an engaging cast, effective choreography and beautiful period costumes that make for a sumptuous theatrical treat.

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The English playwright wrote Amadeus for the stage in 1979, and then adapted it to screen for the award-winning 1984 film. The play is a fictionalized story guided by the dying composer Antonio Salieri who, at the start of the play, claims to have poisoned Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The play then flashes back to Mozart’s unruly arrival in Vienna in 1781, and follows Salieri’s jealous sabotage of the young composer’s career. It is a play about envy and genius, and the creation of art and the creation of self.

The costumes for the play are enjoyably extravagant. For the most part they feel authentic – at least to the untrained 21st century eye. Of course, a big piece of Mozart’s quirky grandiosity comes from his colorfully clashing costumes. He almost always seems to be wearing five colors at a time. This contrast is one very effective way of building Salieri’s comparative dignity in the eyes of the audience.

Similarly, the choreography of this production is vital not only in audience engagement, but as part of the storytelling process. Because Solieri is constantly interacting with the audience in longer monologues, the dynamic movement of his character keeps the journey of the story moving forward. Meanwhile, whenever Mozart steps on stage, his explosive and excitable presence contrasts strongly with the reserved stoicism of the aristocratic characters. Though there are moments that seem almost too cinematic – such as the frequent freezing of characters mid pose – for the most part the choreography works to consistently enhance the story.

But as is always the case in theater, the heart of the play lies in the actors, most especially in the two main characters. Mozart, played by Stanton Nash, is written as an immature and initially unlikable character. If at times Nash’s performance seemed over the top – especially in the earliest scenes of the play – it only worked to further our attachment to our anti-hero Solieri. Nash’s flamboyance in the first half of the play deflated considerably in the second, and it is his effective dissolution into madness that earns our pity as the play progresses.

The anchor of the entire performance is Bruce Randolph Nelson as Solieri. From the very beginning he builds an intimacy and rapport with the audience. As the story builds momentum, Nelson’s wryness and sincerity means we cannot help but side with Solieri, even as he pulls the strings that will lead to Mozart’s unraveling. Nelson’s performance is especially moving in moments where he listens to Mozart’s compositions. The layering of emotions – of being simultaneously moved by the music and incredibly jealous of its origins – is astounding.

Though the run of Amadeus at Center Stage is now over, many are undoubtedly still feeling the play’s impact. If you are interested in seeing a performance at the theater, the contemporary rock opera Next to Normal will be running through mid-November.

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