Open Space arts up Market Street

by Amy Kingsley

The Open Space Café Theatre doesn’t have a fancy arts district address. You won’t find it among the high-end boutiques, white-tie restaurants and parking valets that have taken to revitalized downtown Greensboro like termites to deadwood.

In fact, on a Saturday night, artistic director Joe Nierle — who moonlights in the box office — offers these landmarks to the lost party on the other end of the phone: Public Storage, Port City Java and Advance Auto Parts.

That’s right, it’s on Market Street, a little more than spitting distance from Harris Teeter and Food Lion. But unless your plans include a late night grocery trip, you’ll forget where you’re at the moment you step through the door.

That’s because Nierle, a New Jersey transplant in his second year of business, has done a fantastic job transforming the old ethnic grocery into an inviting performance space. With a few coats of paint, partition walls, salvaged fixtures and a dash of framed memorabilia, he turned a bleak retail spot into a cozy cabaret.

Several chandeliers — purchased at a church yard sale — bathe the interior in golden light. The café tables are draped in rich burgundy cloth and spaced comfortably distant from each other.

And the interior design is just the first of Nierle’s achievements. The second, more important one concerns what happens inside the space he’s created: quality musical theater that goes down easy with coffee and dessert.

The current show, Crowns, succeeds on the strength of its performances. Director Donna Baldwin-Bradby assembled a monstrously talented cast heavy on veterans of NC A&T University’s professional theater program. The show, which lacks an intermission, hurtles through a musical history of African-American headgear and barely brakes long enough for the actors to catch their breath. Be prepared for sudden shifts in the show’s mood — the cast handles them as deftly as birds swerving in a V-formation.

Which brings us to the script. To describe the plot as wafer-thin is an insult to the word “plot.” It has something to do with a troubled Brooklyn teenager sent to South Carolina to live with her grandmother.

But Crowns is a musical, and picking on a musical because of its weak storyline is like faulting sci-fi because it doesn’t reflect the real world. The vignettes tying together Crowns’ musical numbers include history lessons, sermons and comedy skits, and are amusing enough to fill the spaces between the hymns that make up the bulk of the soundtrack.

The writer, Regina Taylor, deserves credit for nodding at the big themes of female friendship and Southern spirituality without getting bogged down in mawkishness and cliché. Instead she keeps it brisk, informative and uncomplicated.

Open Space’s stage is small and ill-suited to highly technical productions. The set uses the space smartly, although the cast struggles to turn the rotating closets at the start of the show.

It’s nice to see an upstart theater funneling its resources into its most important resource, performers. The rest of the theatrical elements — props, lighting and costumes — are done well enough not to distract from high caliber performances by the six women and one man who make up the cast of Crowns.

I’m late to the Open Space party. The show I attend sells out, but Nierle sold me a ticket anyway and pulled an extra chair out of storage. At a small counter inside the lobby, an employee cuts layer cake and dispenses coffee in insulated cups.

The provisions and entertainment available at Open Space compliment each other perfectly. The second season features plenty of light theater. You wouldn’t go to Open Space expecting the dour old men of theater any more than you’d go to an ice cream parlor expecting haute cuisine.

Open Space Café Theatre may not be in the arts district, but it’s proving itself an enjoyable addition to Greensboro’s arts scene. If you haven’t been there yet, you oughta check it out. Just look for the marquee — it’s right next to Public Storage.

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