By Pete Zamplas
Local acting troupe The Cardboard Sea won an award at the recent Asheville Fringe Festival, for its play Centrifuge.
The group won it second successive Fringe award was for pushing boundaries of “everyday life and art.” This time, Centrifuge tied Jenni Cockrell’s Osteometry. was performed on the small stage of The Sly Grog Lounge three evenings starting Jan. 23. That is once more than usual for a Fringe act.
The play is directed by Todd Weakley, Hendersonville High School drama instructor since 2003. Alumnus Olivia Stuller (HHS ’09), one of Weakley’s former students, is in the cast.
The other actors, who mostly live in Asheville, are Charlie Holt starring as prima donna Sabine, Kristi DeVille, Kirsten Leigh Daniel, and Laura Crutchfield.
DeVille choreographed the play. The Warren Wilson College instructor is Montford Park Players’ resident choreographer.
Jeff Donnelly, a Floridian who co-founded the troupe with Weakley five years ago, wrote Centrifuge. The dark comedy’s plot springs out of a reunion of adults who were youth campers together, 25 years ago when they were 14 years old.
They are recreating a dance routine they were working on back then. They wonder if ringleader Sabine will join them, a quarter-century after she suddenly fled the camp during its session over mysterious conflicts.
The play “explores the limits of friendship, and the challenges of maintaining those connections in our ‘post-truth’ era ,” Weakley stated. There are many poignant moments. Revelations emerge.
Sabine is literally the center of attention, by being in the center of the chorus line and often doing flourishing dance moves.
Sabine on the surface is histrionic, very hard to work with in the dance routine, and prone to breaking away and pouting. As Stuller notes, Sabine has much power by holding up the rehearsals until others apologize to her.
But beneath her hyper-sensitivity are complex situations between Sabine and her camp friends, who may deserve some scolding. As Holt notes, Sabine does not always demand total confession and apology. Instead, Sabine alters expectations, recognizing what each seems capable of changing and providing to her.
The characters vary in depth and maturity, and get distinguished. Indeed, “centrifuge” is a machine that with centrifugal force (a la Sabine’s outrage) circularly spins denser objects away from center.
Crutchfield’s character, for instance, is least into apology mode. She urges the others to skip conflicts, and simply get on with practicing the dance. Sabine ends up being fine with less of an apology, Holt said.
But this is after fuming over a falling out seven years earlier, an encounter that contrasts to the others not seeing each other since camp days. Sabine sarcastically snaps at Crutchfield’s character to start dancing in step with the others, “now that your conscience is clear.”
Author Donnelly’s alternate vision is the confessing characters are trying to repent, “stuck in a loop in purgatory,” Weakley said. Another interpretation is Sabine is dead, the others are alive but guilt-ridden, and they sense her spirit beckoning them to confess how they each slighted her.
There are so far no plans to perform Centrifuge again, Weakley said, but if so it might first be developed into a fuller play. In essence, the Cardboard Sea has put on many exclusives for Fringe as a regular performing group in the festival of eccentric and thought-provoking acts.
The group did two dark comedy musicals in a row for Fringe. In 2017, it was Mine and Yours, about tension in a rock band. Then came brisk 20-minute Old Tricks in 2018. That was about actors’ intertwining personas on and off camera. An all-female rock band backed a scandalized former TV star. Stuller was the gentle-natured singer.
Last year, dance piece Psyche modernized the ancient Cupid and Psyche myth about love. As Weakley noted, it portrayed “forbidden desires, mistaken identifies, and intimate betrayals.”
Back in Fringe 2016, This is Now/This is How starred HHS alums Lauren Williams (Class of ’08) and Hannah Eicholtz (2011). They co-wrote the script with Weakley. It is about a friendship that self-destructs, with one friend trying to find out why from the other one but eventually flipping emotions.
The two alums among others credited their former teacher Weakley with treating them as adult peers, as Cardboard Sea resident director.
Those two actresses were also in If You Must, in The Magnetic Theatre in summer 2015. The dark comedy was about lingering grudges. That was the Cardboard Sea’s first play.
Most involved in Centrifuge also helped put on The Devotees, another blend of silliness and serious messages. That musical was last Aug. 1-10, in historic BeBe Theatre in Asheville. The play is about people camping in line at a stores, to be first to buy a new tech wonder gadget. Ryan Anderson, whom Weakley met in 2014 when both played in rock bands, played his original angst-filled music in the production.
Weakley, 44, has acted and directed in Asheville for decades. HHS principal Bobby Wilkins has said Weakley is “fabulous with his students, and they love him.”
Weakley’s HHS advanced theatre class won as best play in the state in 2004-05, for Helpless Doorknobs, the sole original script in the scholastic competition. The play earned Southeastern regional honors in playwriting and creative directing. The students also performed it publicly in the prestigious Diana Wortham Theatre in ’05, for the Stoneleaf fest.
The 17 students wrote the script collectively. Weakley encouraged them to develop characters, to fit troubled people searching for truths. One student actress, Jessica Eblen, coached Lady Bearcats to the 2019 team state tennis title.
That 45-minute show had four scenes with separate actors and unique music, choreography, costuming colors and moods — Regret (brown), Abandonment (black and white), Betrayal (red) which has a vengeful murder plot, then Love Unrequited (green).
Weakley and Donnelly met when both studied drama at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla. They were in the now-defunct Redundant Theatre Co., which Weakley helped launch in Asheville in ’94.
The troupe name “Cardboard Sea” is an off-shoot of familiar, dreamy “paper moon.” Donnelly and Weakley said their “transformative” theater aims to “produce works of social significance” and “activate, engage, surprise, and provoke audiences to self-reflection.”