Something Rotten! | Stone Soup Theatre | N.C. Museum of Art, Raleigh, Oct. 9–10

Forest Theatre, Chapel Hill, Oct. 16–17 & 23–24 | 

The Woolgatherer | David Berberian | Shadowbox Studios, Durham, Oct. 7–9 & 14–16 

As seasoned theater veterans, Melissa Dombrowski and Joanna Sisk-Purvis know the old showbiz adage, “Changes keep a show fresh.”

Still, as the artistic director and music director of Stone Soup Theatre, they’re hoping right about now that the region’s newest theatrical troupe has seen the last of the major (and wholly unexpected) changes that their inaugural production of the Broadway musical, Something Rotten!, have encountered on the way to its opening performance.

How major?

Well, first they lost their rehearsal spaces, which had been free.

Then they lost their venue.

Say this much: theatrical setbacks like those tend to raise the bar for what constitutes bad news. After those reversals, losing 20 costumes suddenly didn’t seem so big a deal.

But not to worry: the show will go on, its daytime matinees starting this weekend. And due to equally unexpected strokes of good luck—plus some major community support—Stone Soup’s in a much better place, all in all, than they expected to be by show week.

Still, getting there has been a little trickier than expected.

To be clear, the two—who last worked together in April on the Durham Savoyards’ innovative online miniseries version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience—didn’t initially plan on mounting a big Broadway musical during a pandemic.

When they decided to incorporate a new theater company back in April, “everyone was getting the vaccine and it seemed to be working,” Dombrowski says. At the time, she and Sisk-Purvis thought that a summer production might be too close, “but by October,” Dombrowski recalls, “surely we could do it.”

“Two days after we cast the show, we first heard about the Delta variant,” Dombrowski says.

The pair persevered, requiring proof of vaccination from auditioners, cast, and crew, and rehearsing at a distance in face masks.

Then, as Delta surged, municipalities in Orange County closed once more the community center spaces where Stone Soup qualified for free rent as a nonprofit organization, endangering the nascent company’s budget. In the very few places where rehearsal space is commercially available, it’s usually very expensive.

At that point, Triangle Youth Ballet decided they couldn’t stage their annual production of The Nutcracker, due to COVID, and gave Stone Soup free studio space in which to rehearse.

“We were so fortunate that they were willing to share an entire studio for our run,” Dombrowski says.

Then UNC-Chapel Hill placed a 40-day moratorium on the use of the Forest Theatre space following the early September death of a student there. The move threatened to cut their show’s run in half—a move that also would have placed the company’s economics in peril.

Then the North Carolina Museum of Art offered the struggling group Bryan Amphitheater as a site for their opening weekend. A two-week run at Forest Theatre following that leaves Stone Soup with a net gain: six shows instead of four, over three weekends instead of the two they originally expected.

The latest twist in this theatrical roller-coaster ride comes just before our interview: word from FedEx that 20 doublets—those 17th-century tight-fitting jackets shaped and fitted to a man’s body—loaned for free from a friend’s company in California will be very late, arriving five days before the opening show.

“Do you have any idea how much time it takes for alterations on 20 doublets?” Dombrowski asks. “We’ll be wearing paper sacks instead!”

After our conversation, in yet another 11-hour intervention, PlayMakers Repertory offered to loan costumes from their inventory.

“It feels like somebody wants this show to happen,” Dombrowski concludes in a calmer moment. “We’ve had so much support. This theater is clearly wanted very much by the community we’re trying to serve.”

Meanwhile, long-time Durham actor David Berberian has been generating a different sort of beginner’s luck in the run-up to this weekend’s opening of The Woolgatherer, his first regional show as producer.

What does a producer do? Select a show they can pull off, for starters: in this case, a work situated in every way on the far end of the spectrum from the song-and-dance spectacle of Stone Soup’s major musical.

The Woolgatherer is a two-character psychological drama that takes place in a single sparsely furnished room—which is desirable, if you’re trying to economize on cast size and set design.

Then a producer procures the best talent they can find. Berberian achieved that, tapping Derrick Ivey, an award-winning regional director and former Durham Savoyards artistic director, to helm the show, and Jeri Lynn Schulke, a noted local actor with a long resume of impressive shows, as his co-star.

“I just have to say how humbled I am that these two decided to join me. The nice thing about producing this show is that I don’t have to worry for a minute about what Jeri Lynn and Derrick are going to do. They’ve both brought their A-games,” Berberian says.

For Schulke, the decision was a no-brainer. “David emailed me, I just emailed him back and said yeah. I didn’t even ask what the play was, where he was going to do it, and who was going to direct.”

“I was gobsmacked,” Berberian says.

The two play a pair of damaged souls who meet by chance one night in the big city. Playwright William Mastrosimone’s work “is so intimate,” Berberian reflects. “I really think you can feel the heartache of these characters and the lives they’ve accumulated and are carrying around. I like to say they recognize the brokenness in each other. There’s such an intimate dance between them.”

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