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Vanishing Axe

Scars literal and figurative afflict the characters in this sweet musical

Katie Solomon has got to feel to heal.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/13/2010

Violet

Presented by Teatro 101

Through Jan. 24 at Mobtown Theatre

With only two productions to its credit, the new local company Teatro 101 is already proving itself an emerging player in Baltimore's up-and-coming young theater community. Back in July, the company founded by David Gregory debuted with the intimate comedy The Little Dog Laughed and now it digs into a musical featuring 16 players and a five-piece band. With Violet--which debuted off-Broadway in 1997, featuring music by Jeanine Tesori, who provided the tunes for Thoroughly Modern Millie and Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change--Teatro 101 continues its impressive use of stage space and an all-in trust in the imaginations of its performers, with a cast culled primarily from students in Towson University's theater department, past and present. The only thing holding this young company back at the moment is its choice of material.

Set in and along a bus trip from Spruce Pine, N.C., to Tulsa, Okla., during the summer of 1964, Violet tells the story of its titular heroine, a 25-year-old woman from mountainous western North Carolina with a serious chip on her shoulder. Violet (Katie Solomon) snakes through public life on the bus behind a tattered bird's nest of hair that she tries to hide behind, constantly burying her face in her late mother's catechism book, jotting notes to herself about the preacher she's going to see in Tulsa. Violet does believe in the healing power of Jesus, and you would too if you had a scar running down your face and across the bridge of your nose from an accident involving an axe blade when you were 13.

The production leaves the scar up to your imagination, and director Ryan Michael Haase and lighting designer/stage manager Charlie Long make the sly choice to leave a great deal of the play's physical trappings up to the imagination. The entire production takes place on Mobtown Theatre's almost barren stage. A low wooden plank riser has been set in the middle of the stage, and the only props involved are a pair of wooden step ladders and suitcases, which nearly ever cast member carries as the production begins. This spartan set up creates the bus itself, many a bus stop along the route, a Memphis boarding house and gin joint, a Tulsa church, and the Spruce Pine of Violet's childhood memories/dreams. It's an imaginative journey conveyed almost entirely through the performances, and everybody helps achieve it. Background players mime chatter and activity on the bus, and the whole ensemble folds itself into a church choir in Tulsa. This Violet is a story dominated by three key leads, but it's a production that lives or dies by the commitment of its entire ensemble to energize its scenic transformations.

The central tension here is an awkward love triangle that develops between Violet and two traveling soldiers--white pretty-boy Monty (Steven Bainbridge) and the African-American Grady "Flick" Fliggins (Troy Hopper). Both men react strongly to first seeing the disfigured Violet, but both slowly find themselves attracted to her. Flick thinks she might know what it's like to be an outsider, while Monty finds her different from all the other women he's ever known--possibly because he's gotten to know her past her looks. She can run the table during poker games and can drink with the best of them when they hit Memphis. Monty thinks about heading over to Vietnam, but wonders if Violet might be the one, while Flick is much more sincere about his feelings for her.

Throughout, Violet flashes back to Violet's early life, when the young girl (Jayne Harris) lives with her father (John Hurley), who teaches her how to play cards, how to handle herself, and might have been the source of her accident. That unseen scar is, in many ways, the play's organizing motif: What ails Violet--and Flick and Monty, for that matter--is less a matter of what's perceived than how they perceive themselves, and Solomon does a solid job of articulating a young woman whose first impressions with people are always harsh. Early on, she plays Violet as somebody whose relaxed posture is a protective hunch, as if she's always trying to shield herself from the world. She's quick witted and unafraid to trade verbal jabs with the boys, but you suspect that's less flirtation than defense mechanism. Flick is the first to recognize the woman behind the scar, and Flick is who Violet personally responds to while being physically attracted to Monty.

Luckily, Solomon and Hopper (a former City Paper intern) can really sing. Song is where Violet displays the vulnerabilities she won't reveal in life--"All to Pieces" is an especially spry number--and Hopper's easygoing voice complements Flick's persona as the guy who isn't going to turn out to be a shit. The entire cast, in fact, is sneakily packed with singers who come to the fore every so often and hit numbers out of the park. Crystal Freeman shoots out a mean disapproving look as a landlady when Flick brings his two white friends to her black boarding house, but she also turns into a modest, demure church lady in the Tulsa church choir, and when she opens her mouth to sing the heavens part.

Violet, though a lesser known musical featuring some fair tunes and solid performances, is thematically conventional and safe, actually singing and sermonizing the praises of learning to love yourself the way your are. It's a bittersweet, uplifting story, but seeing how well Teatro 101 handles it and the equally formulaic The Little Dog Laughed makes you hunger for what this intelligent and capable company could do with something a bit more challenging. By all means, do see this entertaining musical ingeniously realized by this local company, but also encourage these youngsters to aim higher: Their first two productions prove they're capable of so much more.

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