Cucalorus’ year-old Stage experience is an innovative and ambitious showcase of comedy, dance, theater and music. Where artists were limited to telling their stories on a screen for the past 22 years, they now have the space to interact with audiences in a way that has changed Cucalorus forever.
This year Cucalorus’ lineup includes 28 stage productions, including “5 Fish, a Goat Head, and a Bag of Money” from local comedy troupe Pineapple-Shaped Lamps; “Academania: aka I’m Only Doing This for Tenure” from UNCW associate professor and thespian Ed Wagenseller; and “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” from Blanket Fort Entertainment out of L.A., in conjunction with Wilmington’s own Opera House Theatre Company. The three stage productions challenge audiences to take ideas and themes of the human experience and incorporate them into their daily lives.
Wagenseller’s “Academania: aka I’m Only Doing This for Tenure” is a new one-man show about his 25-year journey trying to find his forever place in the field of education. He’s hesitant to call the almost hour-long comedy a musical, as it’s more of play with musical interludes. The show features five original songs, all told stream-of-consciousness and played on guitar or banjo.
“The music is just a way of breaking up the monotony of my voice,” he quips. “I’ve done this long enough to know there’s a couple of things [that will kill] academia: one is PowerPoint, which I use in the show just to make fun of it. The other is just listening to somebody ramble on, talking about themselves, which is what I do for 55 minutes.”
“Academania” is simultaneously a love letter and hate mail to the academic system in general from his arrival as first-year student to teaching assistant to assistant professor. Throughout the show, Wagenseller is alone and trying to secure stable employment in a competitive world. Along the way surreal discoveries leave the audience questioning if realities they know are true.
Having been in several film productions throughout Cucalorus’ 24-year ride, “Academania” is his first stage production. It reveals how the teaching industry is not a cakewalk, and can be hard to traverse for people with vague knowledge of the world. Despite acting in several well-known television programs (“House of Cards,” “Sleepy Hollow”), he calls this the most honest work he’s done to date. Wagenseller envisioned the story in theatrical form because it would bring different views and experiences to the table than a film would.
“‘Academania’ is right for Cucalorus because Cucalorus films and productions are always on the edge and the fringe,” he states, “and this show skirts the fringe of traditional plays because of how controversial it is.”
He performed the first 15 minutes of the show as part of 2017’s Cucalorus Stage. The work-in-progress helped him flesh out the finished production. He shows a flawed and uneasily navigable system, and even takes apart higher education to reveal struggles and confusion within the field.
“I think some of the root problems is academics sometimes forget who they are there to serve,” he specifies. “We are here to serve the student. But depending on the professor and what university they’re at, whether it’s a research one or research two . . . a research one university is not about the student, it’s about publishing and research. To me, that’s foreign.
The fear of an unstable future and the commentary on modern-day employers and society in “Academania: aka I’m Only Doing This for Tenure” transcends from stage to the real world. To be clear, however, while Wagenseller spends 50 or so minutes making fun of academia, he also celebrates it. “There is a wart on the butt of every job out there and I just happen to use academia to highlight the warts that exist there,” he notes.
While Wagenseller is waxing “Academania,” another production will bring to light maniacal themes from the famed “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Presented by Wilmington’s own Opera House Theatre Company (OHTC) and co-produced with Anna Stromberg and Burt Grinstead of Blanket Fort Entertainment (BFE), the production takes a turn from dark and brooding to comical. It’s even gained critical success in Hollywood. “We are just so excited for the East Coast premiere of our little production!” former Wilmingtonian Stromberg tells.
Stromberg became friends with OHTC artistic director Justin Smith while growing up in North Carolina and performing theatre around ILM’s famed stages. Stromberg annually attended Cucalorus before moving out to L.A. to found Blanket Fort Entertainment.
“I felt like Wilmington was a real community of support and creativity,” she gushes. “I’m so excited they’ve expanded the festival to encompass all types of art forms, and we’re just thrilled to be a part of it!”
The show takes place in the fog-ridden streets of London in the 19th century, where Dr. Henry Jekyll is close to a neurological discovery that will change the face of medical science forever. However, due to his unethical methods, a colleague threatens to destroy his work, which forces Dr. Jekyll to perform the procedure on himself. As a result of the experiment, the persona of Edward Hyde cohabits his body. He has developed a potion to allow him to switch back and forth between the two with great moral conflict.
Along the way, Dr. Jekyll, a well-respected surgeon, begins to doubt the experiment, while Mr. Hyde, the loathsome criminal with a bad reputation, wants to continue to live and turns to desperate measures to avoid getting caught. The story focuses on timeless themes, such as, “What is morality? How do we know what is good and evil? Does society tell us? Does religion? Do we inherently know what goodness is?”
“I think what initially drew us to the story was the duality of the title character,” Stromberg says. “As writers and actors, we knew it would be a fun challenge to tackle this age-old tale.”
One of Blanket Fort Entertainment’s goals is to create fast-paced, fun and moving theatre. Because of how well-known the story is makes it all the more ripe for a comedic retelling.
“Because everyone is on the same page, we can begin to poke fun of the genre and the story right away without having to spend so much time on exposition,” Stromberg notes. “However, it is an incredibly dark tale, so finding the balance between comedy and tragedy is a big challenge. . . . One element that we used was the style and tone of [older] films. The utter commitment to completely cheesy moments was something we really wanted to poke fun of, while maintaining the truth of these characters. One scene in particular comes to mind where we do a very dramatic chase that usually has people in stitches.”
Grinstead and Stromberg play many relatable characters, like narrator Mr. Utterson, Richard Enfield, Dr. Lanyon, Dr. Henry Jekyll, Edward Hyde, Sir Danvers Carew and Richard Poole. “There is one character in particular from early in the play who makes a later appearance, and each time she does the audience really gets a kick out of it,” Stromberg notes. “I think this is probably the main element that separates our version from other adaptations; it’s probably more fair to say it’s a parody rather than an adaptation of the novella.”
Comedy is something local troupe Pineapple-Shaped Lamps are all too familiar with on Wilmington’s theatre scene. They’ve also been a part of Cucalorus in year’s past but this year brings new laughter with their sketch comedy show “5 Fish, a Goat Head, and a Bag of Money.” It features a hodgepodge of props and costumes from several theatres around the Cape Fear region.
“Earlier this year PSL helped clean up North Front Theater [and] we came across myriad alarming and absurd props from productions past,” says Jessica Gift, director of the show.
As a tribute to the relics, the troupe used them as inspiration for writing a sketch show. Included were five plastic fish, whose former lives were in “Big Fish: The Musical” and then repainted for “39 Steps”; a goat mask from the musical “Triassic Parq”; and a burlap sack originally used for a bag of loot in the musical “Bonnie and Clyde.” The writers were presented with the pile and tasked with incorporating at least one of the found objects into their sketches. The show is a collection of pieces with a through-line of props and costumes that tie them all together. This isn’t the first time PSL has explored writing in this way.
“We have experimented with similar concepts in the past,” PSL founder Wes Brown says. “We did a show once where all of the sketches we performed were written within one hour. Another time we had a few specifics that each sketch needed to involve (a prop, line, location) and developed an entire show based around that. . . . I think it’s both fun and challenging for the writers to work with prompts. The items are very specific in nature, but the sketch surrounding them has the opportunity of being quite absurd.”
“5 Fish, a Goat Head, and a Bag of Money” hits darker notes of humor and is heavily based in character. It makes the production complimentary to the “anything goes” ideal of the Cucalorus lineup. Gift explains how it’s given them a chance to use sketch comedy as a tool to explore the surrealism of human relationships. Rather than a show heavy with quirky loglines, it is a show that explores how comedy can show positive relationships, character growth, and occasionally dark truths. Each sketch touches on one of the many kinds of relationships experienced between different people.
“The writers seemed to unintentionally decide to explore more grounded themes than we have in the past,” says writer Lucy O’Brien. “The show feels less wacky and more relatable, I think.”
It also gives performers a better launching pad to jump from and explore. It has encouraged all of the actors to be cooperative and to rely on each other. Her favorite sketch from “5 Fish…” is called “Drunk Girls,” written with fellow performer Matt Carter. “We wanted to write a sketch about the experience of being drunk in the bathroom and making best friends with a stranger because you complimented her shoes,” she explains. “It just feels so positive and supportive, and it’s a lot of fun to perform.”
Carter plays six characters in total: Woody, Quiznos, Gaston the Delivery Goat, Jarvis, Hugh, and Chetwick. They are, in order, a man at a high school reunion; a “regular teen”; a delivery goat; a hyperactive 8-year-old; a man on a date with his girlfriend; and a totally bro bank robber.
“My hope is that you laugh at least one sketch, it’s like a buffet of different types of humor,” Carter says.
As well, Pineapple-Shaped Lamps also will have their short, “Class Dismissed,” shown in the Jackfruit block at Jengo’s Playhouse on both Friday, November 9 at 7:15 p.m. and Sunday, November 11 at 9:45 p.m.