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Lowcountry audiences find an entertaining home in Lean Ensemble’s ‘The Clean House’

The Island Packet May 2017

Audiences find an entertaining home in Lean Ensemble’s ‘The Clean House’

A single actor, dressed in black and positioned in front of the minimally appointed architectural set done in various shades of white, offers a joke.

The joke is dramatically presented, artfully gestured and completely absorbing. We, in the audience, enjoyed every moment ... even laughed at the punchline.

The actor delivered the joke in Portuguese with a well-placed supertitle in English, something like, “Matilde tells a joke.”

That compelling moment in “The Clean House” was the perfect bellweather of the Lean Ensemble’s brilliant production of the award-winning play.

The play was created by playwright Sarah Ruhl and is directed by Blake White, the founding artistic and executive director of Lean Ensemble Theater, and acted by an experienced and talented cast of five: Ryan K. Bailer, Taylor Harvey, Karin De La Penha, Carolyn Popp and Jenny Zmarzly.

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Cast shines in Lean Ensemble's production of 'Tribes'

The Island Packet Jan. 2017

I wasn’t prepared for the full range of emotions I would experience when I saw the performance of “Tribes” on opening night at the Hilton Head Preparatory School Main Street Theater. The show is at once eye-opening, soul-shaking, joyful, searing, filled with ferocious intensity and, through it all, loaded with star-quality performances.

Though I’d seen segments of the work, read the script and even had the opportunity to talk with some of the cast members, the beauty of their acting was jaw dropping. “Tribes” is, by turns, very funny, very sad, very happy, elegantly nuanced and filled with courage and relevance.

Written by the British writerNina Raine and first performed in 2010 in London, “Tribes” has been seen and appreciated by so many theater goers across the country. We know Raine for her approach to thought-provoking issues.

Sometimes a writer chooses to create a work not simply to entertain, but to offer a storyline designed to inform, to instruct or to offer an opinion. The writer’s goal is to make a difference, to offer a point of view and, especially, to communicate some form of moral purpose which will connect with an audience.

Deaf Actor Breaks Boundaries Jan 2017

When Lean Ensemble Theater director Blake White decided to stage Nina Raine's critically-acclaimed Tribes, he knew he'd be plunging the two-year-old theater company into new territory. The play, which tells the story of a young deaf man and his struggle to be understood in a hearing world, needed an actor who had experienced those challenges firsthand.

On stage, the actor who would play Billy would have to navigate through a family of talkers-a family who, out of a desire to make him feel "normal," had decided against teaching him sign language. Instead he would rely on lip reading. But this is a clan whose conversations are dizzying in their complexity and verbal acrobatics, leaving Billy isolated. When a girlfriend introduces him to signing, he enters a new realm of communication, creating complications with and within his familial tribe.

After screening many audition tapes, White, who also serves as LET's founding artistic director, chose Joseph Ausanio, a 25-year-old LA-based deaf actor and writer who had played Billy in a West Coast production. Ausanio's portrayal had blown White away.

Joseph Ausanio told me that he knew from the time he was about seven that he wanted to become an actor.

“My mom had taken me to see “Children of a Lesser God,” and when I saw Marlee Matlin, I thought, I want to be like that,” he said.

Actually, that doesn’t sound particularly unusual. Many young people dream of becoming actors when they grow up.

But Joseph Ausanio, who will take on the character of Billy in the Lean Ensemble’s production of Nina Raine’s award winning “Tribes,” when the show opens January 26, was not the typical seven year old. About the time he turned four, following a frightening battle with bacterial meningitis, he was diagnosed as profoundly deaf.

“My family was devastated,” said Ausanio. “No one in our family was deaf. They could not imagine that something like this would ever affect any of us. My dad, a major league baseball player, and my mom, were determined to see to all of my special requirements. I had cochlear implant surgery, and they befriended a deaf couple, and arranged for me to spend time with them, and connect with them in their silent world.

“Above all,” he continued, “ my parents wanted to make sure that I experienced a typical childhood, and that I was viewed by everyone as simply a member of our family. Though I had an interpreter, took speech therapy and I worked way beyond my classroom requirements, I wasn’t given any particular accommodations for my hearing loss. I was mainstreamed in school, succeeded academically, I was always involved in the school’s sports programs ... . And, so importantly, I would speak. I would not use sign language and they wouldn’t either.”

“I was surprised,” said Ausanio, “when I realized that my personal life paralleled, in so many ways, Billy’s, my character in “Tribes.” ... He also was required to connect with his family, friends and his broader community by speaking.”

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Even before I entered Hilton Head Preparatory School’s Main Street Theater, I heard excited voices and laughter echoing through the lobby for the opening of the Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of “Buyers & Cellers.” The conversations around the room were focused on the solo performance Matt Mundy.

Mundy shines in playwright Jonathan Tolins’ celebrated one man show.

This outrageous, very funny, comedy, with periodic doses of poignancy, is set in a famous basement and revolves around an episode in the life of an underemployed Los Angeles actor who, in order to make ends meet, has taken on an odd job.

Our actor, Alex More is going to work for the actress and music legend Barbra Streisand. His responsibilities are fascinating and clearly defined. He will become a costumed shopkeeper smoothing the operation of some peculiar underground stores, which Streisand actually had built beneath her Malibu home. Streisand is the only shopper. There’s a doll store, a gift shop, an antique shop, a frozen yogurt shop and more. They seem to be an outward and visible expression of the condition of Streisand’s condition. She is dealing with pieces of the of her life — her earliest days, her theatrical career and stardom, along with her present days.

Matt Mundy stars in the Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of “Buyers and Cellars.” Jean-Marie Cote Submitted photo

Matt Mundy stars in the Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of “Buyers and Cellars.” Jean-Marie Cote Submitted photo

Mundy, under the direction of Lean Ensemble Theater’s Nick Newell, approaches this comedy as he confronts questions about values, relationships, success celebrity, even star power along with the pluses and nature and impact of fame.

While “Buyers & Cellars” is filled with fictional material, there are delightful threads of absolute truth.

Alex More will introduce you to a shiny coffee table book, “ My Passion for Design,” an honest to goodness first book by Barbra Streisand. It presents the story of her dream house and may be the substantive motivation for the imagining we are all taking in.

Mundy offers the spirit, the character, the talent, the ego and certainly the eccentricities of those six widely, different visitors. He moves brilliantly, physically and convincingly as he morphs into the character of those “visiting” him in his basement setting. Through our night together, he offers Alex, of course. Further, we meet Barry, Alex’s boyfriend; Barbra; Barbra’s assistant; Alex’s agent; and Barbra’s husband, James Brolin. Mundy carries each one of them off masterfully. His expression changes, as does his posture. There are subtle and not so subtle gestures and mannerisms, all not only convincing, but spot-on.

There is brilliance, energy and great good humor in Mundy’s top-notch performance. This was a phenomenal evening of theater.

Artist, musician, teacher and writer Nancy K. Wellard focuses on portraying and promoting the cultural arts, first in Los Angeles and, for close to 30 years, in the Lowcountry. Email her at

Review: ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ makes Lean Ensemble theater company one to watch

The Island Packet May 2016

So much works in Lean Ensemble’s latest production — “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” — that it’s hard to single out any one particular element over another.

The Christopher Durang play, about sibling rivalry, change and a sense of being disconnected, opened Thursday night at the Hilton Head Preparatory School Main Street Theatre on Hilton Head.

But two scenes in particular stand out.

The first, only in order of appearance, is when the perpetually self-pitying Sonia, played by the amazing Jenny Zmarzly, takes the proverbial leap of faith and finally agrees to something.

I won’t spoil what that something is here, but suffice it to say it’s a charming if not nearly tear-producing scene in which a woman finally takes action on her own behalf after a lifetime of inaction.

The second scene, involving the loveable but ever-adrift Vanya, played brilliantly by the equally amazing Jim Stark, is a breathtaking monologue on everything from a loss of innocence to alienation through technology.

In the hands of lesser talents, these and other scenes could have played as precious or overly-wrought in tone. But both Zmarzly and Stark deliver them in such nuanced ways that audience members were spellbound.

Hilton Head theater company takes on “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”

The Island Packet April 2016

Sibling rivalry, familial responsibilities and even technological overkill are at the center of a new Lean Ensemble production coming up this week on Hilton Head Island.

The theater company will close out its first full season with the Tony award-winning comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” by the American playwright Christopher Durang.

The play builds its tension around the strained family dynamic — a tension that director and company founder Blake White said will keep the audience entertained.

“Masha feels like she’s doing her part and Sonia and Vanya feel like they’re doing their part,” White said. “And the audience feels like everyone is doing their part.”

Review: Cast of Lean Ensemble's 'The Glass Menagerie' delivers a jewel

The Island Packet October 2015

Thursday's opening-night performance of Tennessee Williams' classic "The Glass Menagerie" by Lean Ensemble Theater was -- like one of the fragile figurines the play is named for -- a little jewel.

Directed by Blake White, the play was expertly staged and cast.

Nora Leahy and Matt Mundy star as siblings, Amanda and Tom Wingfield in lean ensemble theater's production of Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie". 

It can't be said enough how entertaining it was to watch Matt Mundy as the angst-ridden Tom Wingfield. Mundy moved from just-below-the-surface annoyance to fuse-blown exasperation with painful hilarity.

Lean Ensemble Theater to open 'The Glass Menagerie' on Hilton Head

The Island Packet October 2015

When the curtain falls at the end of Lean Ensemble Theater's "The Glass Menagerie" opening soon on Hilton Head Island, some may come away feeling slightly depressed.

Then again, some may not.

Nora Leahy and Matt Mundy star as siblings, Amanda and Tom Wingfield in lean ensemble theater's production of Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie". 33 Park Media

"It's definitely there -- that light at the end of the tunnel," says the theater company's founder and artistic director Blake White, who clearly falls in the glass-half-full camp.

New Hilton Head theater company hopes audience leans in for 'God of Carnage'

The Island Packet May 2015

Hilton Head Island's newest theater company wants you to go to a show and lean in.

Not in a Sheryl Sandberg way, but because you're so engrossed in what's on stage that you physically bend forward.

"The goal is to get people to do more than come in, buy a ticket and leave. We want the audience and actors to engage in the conversation," said Blake White, artistic director of Lean Ensemble Theater.

Lean Ensemble Theater's 'God of Carnage'

Lowcountry Weekly May 2015

"Two boys fight in the playground. Two teeth get knocked out. Four parents meet to settle the matter peaceably but negotiations deteriorate as they plunge into a minefield of parenting issues and skirmishes between the sexes that veer from the comical to unsettling truths.

God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza (with a translation by Christopher Hampton) is the debut production of the Lean Ensemble Theater, Hilton Head's newest professional theater company.

Lean Ensemble Presents "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"

Hilton Head Monthly April 2016

Spend a madcap weekend in Bucks County farmhouse with a trio of siblings that could be straight out of Checkhov... except the playwright Christopher Durang has shredded, chopped and pureed them into a rollicking comedy about a dysfunctional family. 

Lean Ensemble Theater's production of the Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" features ensemble members Jim Stark, Peggy Trecker White and Jenny Zmarzly along with Megan Bowers, Christopher Joel Onken, and Kendra Williams, who will make their Lowcountry debuts. The uproarious comedy is directed by Blake White. 

God of Carnage an 'engaging experience'

The Island Packet May 2015

On Thursday, Blake White, artistic director of the Lean Ensemble Theater, invited everyone in the opening-night packed house at the Main Street Theatre to lean forward, engage and enjoy “God of Carnage,” the company’s inaugural production.

To say we leaned forward, engaged and enjoyed the show would be an understatement.

The audience saw a quality performance by a professional, talented cast of a play written by a world-famous playwright and directed by an artful director.

Lean Ensemble Theater: An Innovative Newcomer Goes for the Drama

Pink Magazine

The lights go down. The play begins. The drama unfolds. You notice you’ve leaned forward in your seat, alert and engaged. The people around you are hushed and intent. This is the live performance experience the new Lean Ensemble Theater is bringing to the Lowcountry.

On May 14, the Lean Ensemble Theater will open its doors for their first production—God of Carnage—at the Main Street Theatre.

Blake is a talented actor and director—performing in both capacities at the South Carolina Repertory Company, which closed May 2014.  He insists his role in Lean Ensemble Theater is no more or less important than any other member in the company.  He was born in Pineville, La., and was a theater major at Hanover College. He says, “I knew I wanted to act since third grade; I was 34 before I really knew I could do it.” Blake and his wife, Peggy Treker White, met as actors in a production and later moved to Hilton Head.

Lean Ensemble Performance Group transforms stage performance into group conversation.

Hilton Head Monthly May 2015

Lean Ensemble’s mission is the pursuit of those moments when you find yourself so engrossed in what’s happening on stage that you unconsciously lean forward as if to understand it better, and then you notice that others around you are doing the same thing. It’s a collective experience that transforms a stage performance into a group conversation.


Community Testimonials

"I attended last evening's opening night of The Waverly Gallery and I cannot stop thinking not only of the play but of the top notch performances by all the actors. We stayed for the post show discussion and though I wanted to jump up and cry 'You nailed each and every aspect of a family dealing with dementia.' The subject is still very close to my heart... During the play I saw MY FAMILY on the stage. I saw scenes played out EXACTLY as they had occurred in our lives. I saw the laughter, the hurt, the anger, the sadness experienced by all family members... We are thoroughly enjoying all LET's productions and glad that Hilton Head is your home." - LeAnn Kalita

"I just wanted to say thanks again for allowing our students to come see a performance of The Glass Menagerie. It truly was an excellent performance, and I think many of my students in particular (AP Literature students) enjoyed and really benefitted from seeing such a well-produced play." - Christine Dykstra, English Department, Hilton Head Christian Academy

Thank you! We loved the Play! Great Job.  I am so glad I became a charter member. It will be successful.” - Patty Crews

I don't think an audience could have been more appreciative. Congratulations on the successful opening!” - Marcia Collett

First class production from the minute we came to the front doors of the theater. We were leaning forward in our seats- totally involved, listening, laughing and loving it. Theater is back on the island.  Great job all of you. Thank you. Too much drama, not enough theater. Amen!” - Pat Marks

It was Wonderful.. a full house, a great play, wonderful performers. How exciting! Congratulations to you all!!”  - Cathy and Mike Nairne

We really enjoyed the show!  Bravo! Thank you so much.  Lean Ensemble is a terrific addition to the community.” - Terri Bennett

The production we saw tonight was a towering success in every way.  We had high expectations- but this far exceeded them.  For many years we attended the Long Wharf Theatre and the Yale Rep-- and The Westport Playhouse-- all in Connecticut. We have missed "real" theatre dreadfully.  Thank you all--and especially Blake-- for having the vision." - Roger and Lynne Irvine

Thanks so much for a wonderful experience @ the Theater last nite! When we moved to SC from NYC 10 years ago, my friends up North decided that we were "giving up culture" for good!  As I was enjoying your production of God of Carnage, I laughed at the recollection.” - Sue Gassner