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Theatre Review Archive

REVIEW ARCHIVE

Reviews Fall-Winter 2007

(Select Title to Go To Review)

A MAD, MAD MADRIGAL


THE SANTALAND DIARIES


THE LITTLEST ANGEL


THE CHRISTMAS DOLL


A TUNA CHRISTMAS


A CHRISTMAS CAROL


IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE:
A LIVE RADIO PLAY



THE PILLOWMAN


MOUSE TAILS


THE HEIDI CHRONICLES


THE DOWSY CHAPERONE


BILLY JONAS


SHAOLIN WARRIORS


CIRQUE DREAMS:
JUNGLE FANTASY



THE COMMEDIA PIED PIPER


DRACULA


THE MUSICAL ADVENTURES
OF FLAT STANLEY



LATE NITE CATECHISM


THE WIZARD OF OZ


MANUSCRIPT


THE RAT PACK IS BACK


THE SUBLET EXPERIMENT


HAVING OUR SAY


THE CLEAN HOUSE


OLIVER!


OMNIUM GATHERUM


AUTOBAHN



A MAD, MAD MADRIGAL
Written & directed by Stan Peal
Epic Arts Repertory Theatre
Duke Power Theatre at Spirit Square
December 18 - 23, 2007

Historically, a madrigal is an Italian musical form from the 14th century. It is a composition for two (or sometimes three) voices. In its earliest development it was simply constructed. It has been called a "raw and chaotic singalong". Its origins are obscure, and debated as possibly a secular mutation or derived from the songs of the troubadour. [simpified from Wikipedia and Webster’s]

In this light-hearted, frolicking seasonal offering, Stan Peal has incorporated Celtic, Norse, (possibly Druid or Saxon) and German mythic characters. Also thrown into the mix are smatterings of Classic Literature and Judeo–Christian parallels (yes, parallels, not parables). While it might seem chaotic at times, it is a totally enjoyable way to spend an evening.

Set in the Court of the Berry Queen (the majestic and enigmatic Laura Depta) and the Holly King (the always hilarious Hank West) the “Sassy Gypsy Dancers” (Jina Barragan, Kristen Jones, Annette Saunders, and Paula Schmitt) dance the night away and assist the plot along. Julie Janorschke portrays The Ivory Sorceress with dignity and humor as she narrates the story. Stan Peal is the minstrel and leads the drum circle (any and all other actors) to keep the rhythm moving.

Karen Lamb plays the Bard of Saxon-Upon-Toast who re-writes some classic tales (along the line of fractured fairy tales) to be played with many puns before the King and Queen. Rounding out this rollicking cast are: Tanya McClellan who constantly makes references to other plays and then reenacts a short scene (including several past Epic Arts productions) only adds to the overall hilarity. Meghan Lowther mistakenly hears her directions and creates visual puns and slapstick to increase the fun. Lee Thomas leaps into the role of Biggs of Stonehenge along with other roles. Andrew Barron interjects comic asides no matter which role he is playing. Tom Ollis is wonderful as The Rabid Rockeater and Tiny Jack of Rottingham. Paul Goodson plays the hero the Scarlet Pimpernel in one of his roles with tongue in cheek humor. Lou Dalessandro plays the handsome hero Bobbin Good of Rottingham as well as The Oak King.

Enjoy an evening of merriment with this Epic Arts cast. Cavort and carol along with them. Partake of the mistaken Madrigal feast, and toast with wassail while singing a wassailing song. A Mad, Mad Madrigal is funny, “punny”, irreverent and a great way to take a break from the stress of the season. Bring along a drum and join the drummers circle during intermission and afterward. Wear your dancing shoes and join the dancers.        Review by Karen Lambruschi

Karen Lambruschi has been involved in theatre in South Carolina for over a dozen years as a stage manager, teacher, director and (under duress) an actress. She is currently on the board of Rock Hill Community Theatre and works in North Carolina in the entertainment industry.

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THE SANTALAND DIARIES
By David Sedaris
Adapted by Joe Mantello
Directed by Chip Decker
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
December 7 - 22, 2007

The Santaland Diaries is a one-man show based on the real life experiences of humorist David Sedaris' experiences while working as an elf at Macy's famous SantaLand. Sedaris is well known to National Public Radio listeners and he has published humorous collections including Me Talk Pretty One Day and Naked. Joe Mantello's adaptation of Sedaris' essays introduces us to Crumpet the elf (Sedaris' elf alter ego) who entertains the audience with the inside scoop on the inner workings of Macy's Christmas wonderland.

A play with one actor depends on a gifted actor who can hold the audience's attention and charm them. Joseph Klosek manages to fill his jingly shoes very well. He is smug, sardonic, and always loveable. The audience feels for his suffering as he lists what he hates about many of the worker santas, the unfeeling parents, and his other elf colleagues. The show moves at a brisk pace and Klosek (despite some minor stumbles over lines), steers us from moment to moment expertly and with style.

Stan Peal's set is a marvel. A raked stage evokes every elaborate “Santa” display one might encounter in our pricier department stores—complete with oversized seals, penguins, and candy canes. Donna Conrad's costumes are humorous without being over the top. Hallie Gray's lighting is mostly effective and provides focus for the audience and illuminates each moment differently than the last.

Some of the technical moments seemed a little over the top and forced. The use of well known movie music (I won't spoil the surprise) went on too long and seemed to kill the moment (during one set change and one costume change) rather the highlight them.

The final few moments of the play are extraordinary. I won't give it away, but suffice it to say, every Christmas story has to warm the heart somehow, and this is no exception.

There are a lot of wonderful Christmas-themed plays in Charlotte this season, it would be a shame to miss this one. Sedaris' story is more urbane, adult, and sardonic than most family fair, but it's message is as Christmas as anything. When I attended, Actor's Theatre was also presenting immediately following the production, an additional performance of The Eight Reindeer Monologues. I didn't get a chance to attend this additional performance. If it is anywhere near as well done as The Santaland Diaries, I imagine it is worth checking out and having a good laugh over.

I very much enjoyed this one man Christmas production. I encourage you to make time to take this one in. You won't be disappointed.           Review by Tim Baxter-Ferguson

Tim Baxter-Ferguson is an associate professor of Theatre at Limestone College and Chair of that program. He is a resident playwright at Theatre Charlotte and has had his plays produced throughout the United States and Canada.

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THE LITTLEST ANGEL
Based on the book by Charles Tazewell
Adapted by Patricia Gray
Directed by Steven Ivey
Children's Theatre of Charlotte, Wachovia Playhouse
December 7 - 23, 2007

The temperature might be in the seventies, but it’s December. Downtown is decorated. The halls are decked and even the horse carriages are strung with lights. Time to say, “We Wish You a -- Happy Anniversary! That’s no mistake; it’s an amazing landmark. This is the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s Sixtieth Season! Celebrate it with them at their production of The Littlest Angel at ImaginOn.

The Tarrididdle Players who comprise the cast provide a fine example of ensemble acting. Each gives his or her own character an appealing and distinct personality: Leslie Ann Giles is the happy, suitably hyper, title character and an audience favorite, of course. Gate Keeper Darlene Parker Black engagingly guides her angelic charge with affection and authority. Stephen Seay is well cast as Speedy with his comic timing. Ashby Blakely also adds humor which Maggie Monahan balances with credible concern. Together they entertain with funny exchanges and physical comedy, and successfully bring out sentiment that has made this story popular for decades.

Adults in the audience may have first met The Littlest Angel as a picture book, dogged-eared and dearly loved. It loses nothing with familiarity. Seeing it performed is a treat. It’s interesting to note that the first ever production was a radio reading by Helen Hayes. Its on stage productions have enchanted audiences for years. We might think that we live in the media age, but our “reality” comes up short against such rich history.

A true Grinch might speculate on the low thread count of the clouds or whether or not the wings don’t look like plastic wrap waiting for the holiday ham. Harsh. This is no time to be a Grinch or a Scrooge, but it is a fine time to enjoy a charming seasonal show and support a theatre that has served our city’s children for sixty years. Give a big round of applause for The Littlest Angel and wish Children’s Theatre of Charlotte a Happy Christmas … and a very Happy Anniversary.        Review by Rita Leonard

Rita Leonard is a communications specialist who has most recently taught English at local colleges. She is originally from New York and in no danger of losing her accent or affection for the theatre.

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THE CHRISTMAS DOLL
Based on "The Christmas Doll" by Elvira Woodruff
Book, Music & Lyrics by Joan Cushing
Directed by Alan Poindexter
Scenic & Costume Design by Bob Crogan
Musical Direction by Drina Keen
Choreography by Ron Chisholm
Children's Theatre of Charlotte, McColl Family Theatre
November 30 – December 16, 2007

Okay, here’s the skinny on the show---two sisters, Lucy and Glory Wolcott, escape from a Victorian Age workhouse for orphans where girls are literally working themselves to death under a taskmaster more cruel than any that Dickens dreamed up. After the predictable run-ins with street people – some conniving; some considerate; all desperate – Lucy’s skills with a needle earn her a job in a shop where Christmas dolls are sewn and sold. She hides her sister in the back of the shop until their secret is discovered and, in an ending that Charles Dickens or Nora Ephron would be proud to claim, the girls and their loyal new street-friend, Nick Button, find that all their Christmas dreams do come true.

For me this was all pretty predictable stuff. And...wait...as I was writing that last sentence, it hit me. This isn’t the Old Fogie’s Theatre of Charlotte; it’s the Children’s Theatre…and the children in the audience ate it up. My grandson was into this show before the house lights had finished dimming. He was very impressed by the fog that seemed to roll into every street scene and by the snowfall on Christmas Day. He also liked the music and dance, the story, the sets and especially the ending.

And despite its predictability, this old fogie liked the show too. The performances were solid throughout. Caroline Bower (Lucy) and Emily Calder (Glory) carried their leading roles easily. I’m not sure if it was the intent of the playwright or not, but Ben Mackel’s Nick Button (like his Dickens kin, the Artful Dodger) was a scene stealer every time he was on stage. One of the most surprising elements of this production was that the London accents were right on. What a relief! For I have a personal dislike for actors or casts who attempt dialects half-heartedly. That didn’t happen here. There was even a neat contrast between the clipped cockney street lingo and the more sophisticated tongues of the shop women and their clientele.

I was also impressed with the music which seemed closer to Andrew Lloyd Webber than to Rodgers and Hammerstein or Stephen Sondheim (my own favorites). The cast – kids and adults – sang and danced at a level I didn’t expect, capturing the nuances of tone and lyrics that must have pleased the authors as much as the audience. One of the most notable songs was in Act One, when Glory, Nick and Lucy sing their wishes for (in order) a doll, a sock, and a fine plum pudding. And in the perfect ending for a story of Christmas, the three wishes all come true just before the finale.

The set design held its own set of surprises. As the dismal, muted grays of Act One gave way to brighter colors in Act Two, the mood of the play changed and became more upbeat. The store where Christmas dolls were sold becomes the focal point of the action. In fact, the store itself provides three different settings: First it’s an exterior store front. Then the sides swing open and it becomes an interior with display shelves and a work area; and then the whole set pivots around and becomes the back room of the store where Glory hides. However, as much as I admired the design, a couple of the scenes seemed too short for all the manipulation required.

Still that’s not a major gripe, for my grandson and I both enjoyed every aspect of the show… except (OK, you knew it was coming) except for its length. Two fifty-minute acts seem a little hefty for an evening show for children. Both of us wanted to stay for the after-show talk with the author and playwright but it just wasn’t possible. I had driven my grandson to his chess club at 7:30 in the morning and this show’s finale was fourteen hours later. He was asleep before our car was out of the parking lot. So my apologies to Ms. Cushing and Ms. Woodruff; your work was great; I wish we could have talked.        Review by Don Cook

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A TUNA CHRISTMAS
By Jason Williams, Joe Sears, Ed Howard
Directed by Robert Tolan
The McGlohon Theatre at Spirit Square
November 28 – December 9, 2007

A Tuna Christmas is becoming a Christmas tradition in Charlotte and Spirit Square has certainly already established itself as one our city's treasures. Although smaller in scale than the classic holiday productions at newer and grander venues, audiences are likely to find this combination’s charm to be the real star of the show. Spirit Square is modern and elegant. The McGlohon Theatre is able to blur the blend between the contemporary and comfortable and the historic and unique.

This theatre is very much a part of every show it hosts, and just what sort of Tuna is CAST serving this year? Fresh? Canned? It’s easy to wonder, but such cynicism begs for disappointment. For the most part it’s an entertaining evening at the theatre in which two actors (Tom Olson and Josh Elicker) take on ten roles each, an achievement in itself.

So, it’s well worth catching A Christmas Tuna this year. What’s right with the show is clever and colorful; most of its flaws aren’t on stage and can’t be fixed. A Christmas Tuna is one of those shows that longs to evolve; opportunities for improv and improvement in terms of structure and editing abound. It’s a shame. The actors would’ve been up to the task. The potential is there. It needn’t be a seasonal sacred cow. It’s too soon. No Nutcracker here. Ironically, the classics are more likely to be open to some degree of new artistic interpretation.

The show invites comparisons with other holiday shows, previous productions, and particularly as there are only two, between the actors. The first is unfair; the stocking stuffer should not be faulted for not being a brand new bicycle. It’s neither a big production nor an audience participation, improv based show. The second is inevitable, but once again there are other factors to consider. The “Arles” role is accompanied by the show’s most memorable characters; they are the eccentrics and they get the best lines.

That said, Josh Elicker gives an especially noteworthy performance moving between them making smooth transitions as he gives each a distinctive personality. He makes something very difficult look easy and natural. It’s subtle, with no reliance on exaggerated facial gestures and intonation that occasionally mar Tom Olson's characterizations. Such things are usually a distraction anywhere and the McGlohon is too small and intimate a theatre for them. Olson has a lot on his plate as he reprises his roles this year. His energy and experience complements Elicker's fresh take, but too much of a good thing and the characters become caricatures. It is up to the director to reel in Tuna in instances where the acting appears uneven. Just like that Christmas bicycle, everyone is happy once it’s assembled but tend to complain about the directions. This time the complaint is valid.

The show deserves bigger – not better – audiences, so far proving to be extremely polite - a rare commodity in an age when every portable instrument comes with a camera and phone, and judging by the amount of laughter, clearly amused. That’s no small thing either; if we don’t support our traditions, talent, and theatres, we will lose them – and we won’t know what we’re missing. Try to catch A Christmas Tuna this year. It’s fun and festive -- and meant to be enjoyed in the right “Spirit”.        Review by Rita Leonard

Rita Leonard is a communications specialist who has most recently taught English at local colleges. She is originally from New York and in no danger of losing her accent or affection for the theatre.

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Adapted from Charles Dickens by Doris Baizley
Directed by Vito Abate
A Theatre Charlotte & Charlotte Magazine Production
December 6 - 9, 2007

In a slight "twist" to the classic version of A Christmas Carol, this adaptation begins with "The Stage Manager" played by Kevin Campbell discussing the upcoming production of A Christmas Carol with the "Prop Girl," Brooke Sorenson. As they are inventorying the props, the other cast members stroll in wearing period garb. In the ensuing confusion of everyone talking, they discover that Tiny Tim decided to remain in Raleigh, the previous stop for these traveling players, and Scrooge is nowhere to be found.

After the Prop Girl has preciously, precociously, and adamantly stated to "The Director," Alan England, that she can do Tiny Tim's role, after all there is only ONE line---the cast convinces the Stage Manager to become Scrooge, enumerating the character similarities between himself and Scrooge all the while removing his cardigan and replacing it with a Victorian cutaway coat and ascot.

The plot is propelled by three clowns, including a female harlequin and a juggler. These characters are marvelously played by Julianna Sosa, Miller McGowan and Micah McDade. Comic elements are also introduced by other characters; my favorite reoccurring comic moment (other than the clowns) is the twin reactions of the carolers, very sweetly played by Sumner Park and Jenesis Tucker, to Scrooge every time they see him. The carolers are always accompanied by Phoebe and she steals scenes over and over again...what else do you expect from four legged cast members???

Pam Galle really shines as the Ghost of Christmas Past (along with a couple of other roles, including Mrs. Cratchit). Jamey Varnadore's costuming made her appear larger than life, and definitely larger than Scrooge. David Cruse, who played Bob Cratchit (and "The Leading Man") is comedic and poignant in turn. He is also one of the musical directors for this production. Jorja Ursin must be magical to complete all her costume changes; she has FIVE roles to cover, and unless you are looking hard, you wouldn't know they are all played by the same person.

Chris Sepulveda takes his roles one step over the top by starting out as a napping member of the audience and making everything he does just that much more imbued with strong characteristics. Another actor to take his role over the top is Jack Stevenson. He is one of the most animated faces on stage and is also agile enough to "become a monkey" during charades by crouching on a kitchen chair and using the rails as the cage bars and not making it seem out of proportion. Kathleen Taylor rounds out the cast by charmingly playing "the Ingénue," Belle and Mrs. Fred.

With minimalist staging and good direction, actors must rely on themselves, their costumes and their persona to carry out the illusion of time and place. This cast shows both, aptly and amply.

I like this light-hearted version, only wishing it had continued the cycle to return the cast back into their modern persona. The ambiance is enhanced by the night fog and the lighting (designed by Andrew Leitch). I also love the Greek Chorus effect of Christmas Future with everyone dressed as spectators wearing Scrooge masks. Kudos to all the actors for sharing their joie de vie and showing their joie de character.        Review by Karen Lambruschi

Karen Lambruschi has been involved in theatre in South Carolina for over a dozen years as a stage manager, teacher, director and (under duress) an actress. She is currently on the board of Rock Hill Community Theatre and works in North Carolina in the entertainment industry.

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IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE:
A LIVE RADIO PLAY

By Joe Landry
Directed by Hans Meyer
North Carolina Stage Company &
immediate theatre project
Duke Power Theatre at Spirit Square
December 1 & 2, 2007

If you can, rush over to the Duke Power Theatre to catch this show. It’s well worth it. It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play works on every level. Set up like the old radio programs of the 30s and 40s with two microphones separated on stage by a table that holds the sound effect “objects” between them, and lighted signs that say “On Air” and “Applause,” the play is entertaining and charming.

Joe Landry does a fine job of adapting one of the sacred cows of Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, and makes it seem fresh, even though most of us have seen the movie this time of year, over and over and... you get the idea.

The direction by Hans Meyer, who also plays “H. Christopher Mays” one of the radio actors, is excellent. The five actors are on stage all the time, but instead of having them sit stiffly watching the action, he has them mill around, but with purpose. The audience is let in on the behind the scenes goings on as they take each page of the script and drop it to the floor once it’s completed, and watch the actors create the sound effects. The elements and little details show great care was taken with this ensemble piece. The set is simple but pleasing, as are the costumes.

The actors each play multiple roles. Willie V. R. Repoley is especially impressive as the goody-two-shoes George Bailey. His anger and desperation builds naturally as the man with thwarted dreams who is about to see all he’s sacrificed for amount to nothing, or so he thinks.

Lauren Fortuna is appealing as the pretty, spunky “Lane Fontana” who plays George’s wife Mary, among others. Joe Sturgeon is the most versatile voice actor in his roles as the host, uncle, and assorted smaller roles. Kitty Dale also adds her charm to many supporting characters, and her child and baby voices got deserved laughs.

Since this is a “radio” show, the sound is particularly important. The actors project their voices well and can be heard and understood. Sometimes, though, the sound effects are a bit too low, such as when the characters break a window.

That being said, this is an inviting, charming, terrific collaborative effort by the two theatre companies. The values may seem old-fashioned, but the reason this story has become a classic: that none of us live in a vacuum, especially those who are honest, giving people, is still relevant today. We just need a reminder from time to time that goodness can be its own reward.

North Carolina Stage Company will be back in the spring with Moonlight and Magnolias, and Chesapeake. I can’t wait.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a writer and producer/editor of ARTS à la Mode.

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THE PILLOWMAN
By Martin McDonagh
Directed by Dennis Delamar
Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte
November 9 – December 1, 2007

It’s a good sign for Charlotte when Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte chooses to produce a challenging, complex play like The Pillowman. One of the most daring of the independent theatres in town, it is a place to go for serious and seriously funny quality theatre.

The Pillowman, however, takes provocation to a whole other level. Playwright Martin McDonagh sees the blackest humor in the bleakest human depravity. In this case: child murders. Don’t know how that could be amusing in the least? The laughs, when they come, are uncomfortable, catching the audience by surprise so it’s more of a gasp than outright laughter. The humor is skillfully crafted, if not pleasant.

Katurian (Billy Ensley), a writer, has been hauled into an unnamed totalitarian state by police to talk about his “stories.” They are twisted tales of child abduction, torture, mutilation, and murder that have lately been copied and gruesomely carried out. The two policemen interrogating him, good cop Tupoleski (Brian Robinson), and bad cop Ariel (Rob Simmons) will do anything to break Katurian and get him to confess to the killings. Katurian tries to explain that they are just his stories, and that “I’m not trying to say anything!” But clearly everyone in the play has a story, yet only Katurian is a storyteller. He’s not spared, though. At times he comes across as whiny and self-righteous, but always true to his internal logic.

In the next room is Katurian’s mentally challenged brother, Michael (Chip Decker), who he hears being tortured when he won’t cooperate. This tears up Katurian who cares only about his brother and his stories. He remains an enigma through much of the first act until scenes of his own childhood are shown in flashback sequences. Katurian’s dilemma is drawn out in over two and a half, sometimes excruciating, hours. Katurian himself says, “There are no happy endings.”

As interesting/agonizing/remarkable as the framework is, McDonagh’s underlying theme is about artistic freedom. He has been criticized for his choice of subjects and unappealing, morally bankrupt characters. He is defiant and unapologetic. The truth is that all stories, comedy, drama, whatever, have a point of view, even if unintentional. If they come from the writer’s unconscious mind, and they are repulsive, does that make them any less worthy to be expressed? From the writer’s viewpoint, even the darkest human subjects are fair game, because if you can imagine it, you should be free to write it. While the play takes the audience to horrific places, someone gets you there. That someone is the writer. That the stories may be despicable and offensive is beside the point; it doesn’t make them any less valid. Yet the writer may experience forces that try to subjugate him, crush him, and take every ounce of dignity he has left, the same way the police treat Katurian. A writer is only free when he expresses himself in any manner he chooses without labeling. We don’t burn books, but value judgments are made all the time about the worth of inconveniently unpleasant topics. There is a parallel as there are those who want to set an agenda for art, who want to decide for the rest of us, what we should see and what we shouldn’t.

Late in the play a character derides Katurian and forces him to listen to his idea for a story. Ever the analytical writer, Katurian evaluates it saying it’s not bad, but the character wants more. He wants Katurian to say it’s better than his own stories. This character is the thinly veiled critic (professional or not), a dilettante who “dabbles” in art thinking he can do it better than the artist. He’s contemptuous and dismissive, yet hasn’t written the story and probably never will. There is a reason McDonagh gives Katurian 400 written stories. The real writer/artist doesn’t dabble. The real writer sits down and works hard, and to paraphrase a well known saying, merely opens a vein to write. It isn’t long after the play opens that Katurian is literally bleeding.

Dennis Delamar has done a magnificent job directing The Pillowman. He not only understands the play, he has a quality that all good directors share—-he inspires trust in his actors. This is especially pertinent in a play like The Pillowman where an actor could very easily go too far and not be able to pull back, or not go far enough. Here, the actors are all on target.

Billy Ensley, one of the brightest and best actors in Charlotte, gives a brave, affecting performance. Although multitalented and blessed with a great voice, he stretches himself to play a not entirely likeable character, but manages to make him sympathetic. His performance is fully realized and there is not a false note to be found. The rest of the cast similarly raises the bar and brings the characters to life. Brian Robinson is terrific as the sadistic, judgmental cop whose specialty is imposing more psychological than physical torture. Rob Simmons is likewise excellent as the cop, Ariel. His intense, angry cop seamlessly changes before our eyes. Chip Decker is a revelation as Michael, the mentally challenged brother, and he and Billy Ensley have a believable rapport. The other actors who are in flashback scenes: Kristen Jones, Lee Thomas, Amanda Berkowitz, and Alex Aberman all do a good job and contribute to the overall success of the play.

The technical folks should be mentioned, too. The set design by Stan Peal works well to show the barren, drab, dank interrogation room with its optical illusion floor. On either side the wall panels pull away to show scenes from the past. The lighting by Hallie Gray reinforces the cold, indifferent glare of the police state. Myk Chambers’ costumes are muted colors in real time, almost candy land costumes in the flashbacks. Chip Decker’s sound doesn’t call attention to itself and is more effective because of it.

The Pillowman opened the same year as Doubt; two plays that are not worried about your comfort zone. If they go out of their way to make you squirm, it’s for a reason. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment for its own sake, but there is room, and some would argue, a need, for writers to go to the dark places, too.

Ultimately, The Pillowman is a play you may admire more than you like. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you are willing to take Martin McDonagh’s unsettling journey you will find virtuoso playwriting, outstanding directing, exceptional acting, and a theatrical experience you won’t easily forget.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a writer and producer/editor of ARTS à la Mode.

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MOUSE TAILS
By Joanna Gerdy
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
Tarradiddle Players Preschool Show
November 17-18, 2007

It’s always appealing to see so many families with small children entering a theater in eager anticipation. The Children’s Theatre of Charlotte can take a big bow for setting this scene for so many years. Imaginon and its attractive Wachovia Playhouse deserve applause of their own, although the theater’s narrow aisles are not as adult-friendly as one might like; more room for more children can be considered an excellent trade-off. As a production, Mouse Tails made more questionable trade-offs.

Although all three of the Tarradiddle Players who comprised the cast (Andrea King, Tania Kelly, and Jack Stevenson), are energetic and articulate and extend an easy good humor and camaraderie towards each other and the audience, the show lacks charm. Mouse Tails doesn’t fail; it merely droops. The best tale, its version of the encounter between the city mouse and country mouse, makes the others look uncertain and uninspired in comparison.

The actors’ efforts to engage their audience in song and movement were well received regardless of the quality of the numbers. They were routines in the less attractive sense of the word. With no specific storyline, Mouse Tails comes off as uneven, a haphazard series of so-so sketches. The mouse material didn’t measure up to the actors’ efforts. Their energy, a cute, cleverly staged closing number, and an enthusiastic audience provided an upbeat ending to an enjoyable family outing that seemed determined to disappoint. To borrow a bit from their favorite song, Mouse Tails “cut” it close.       Review by Rita Leonard

Rita Leonard is a communications specialist who has most recently taught English at local colleges. She is originally from New York and in no danger of losing her accent or affection for the theatre.

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THE HEIDI CHRONICLES
By Wendy Wasserstein
Directed by Julie Janorschke
Theatre Charlotte
November 8–18, 2007

In this award winning play (1989 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama, 1989 Tony Award for Best Play, and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play of 1988 – 89) we travel through several historical decades. The focus is the life and times of Heidi Holland. It is a personal journey through the women’s movement starting with events from 1965 (at a high school dance) through the 1980’s; women’s consciousness raising, feminism and women’s rights.

The Heidi Chronicles is buoyed up by the trademark Wasserstein humor that enables the audience to be amused and charmed even by the play's stereotypes. In the course of the play, Heidi is a college student campaigning for McCarthy, an art historian, a lecturer at Columbia University, and a published author. The role of Heidi is played with poignancy by Kristy Morley. Heidi is the picture of a modern woman living an anxiety-filled life, with which I can readily identify.

Heidi’s best friend, Susan Johnston played by Meghan Lowther, stays her best friend through thick and thin from high school on, even though Susan tries several different life styles including living on a sheep farm in Montana as a part of a women’s coalition, to a women’s rights legal council, to a Hollywood TV producer.

Heidi has two other long time friends, Peter Patrone a charismatic homosexual pediatrician played with self-deprecating humor by Dave Blamy, and Scoop Rosenbaum played by John Cunningham. Scoop personifies the macho male who can sweet talk a smart woman into making foolish choices. He constantly grades everyone and everything. He becomes a magazine editor who marries a perpetually happy, non-challenging woman, has multiple affairs, and a very intense on again-off again friendship with Heidi. These friendships which are sort of like the angel and devil on your shoulders, the good vs. the bad, are very much at the heart of Heidi’s story.

Heidi’s life parallels many women’s in that she has no “happily ever after” in her relationships. I didn’t enjoy this play as much as I expected to, but I think that it's because Heidi’s story is too close to mine. (That tells you something right there.) I could laugh at most of the jokes but was also nearly brought to tears by several of the scenes, especially John Lennon’s death and the AIDS discussion, too many memories….

To round out the play, the other 14 roles are played with dizzying costume changes and character changes by Joel Sumner, Dana Ortt, Iesha Hoffman and Jenny Wright.          Review by Karen Lambruschi

Karen Lambruschi has been involved in theatre in South Carolina for over a dozen years as a stage manager, teacher, director and (under duress) an actress. She is currently on the board of Rock Hill Community Theatre and works in North Carolina in the entertainment industry.

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THE DROWSY CHAPERONE
A Musical Within A Comedy
Music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
North Carolina Blumenthal Center
November 13-18, 2007, Belk Theatre

Currently on Broadway where it only opened May, 2006, The Drowsy Chaperone, at the time this review was written has been forced to (temporarily we hope) shut it's doors due to the stagehands strike (which has forced nearly every major Broadway show to shut down). Luckily for us, this crowd pleaser makes itself right at home in the city of Charlotte. This Tony award winning musical is a sheer joy to watch from start to hilarious finish. It is exuberant, silly, and surprisingly fresh. The plot is almost an afterthought, but that's okay. The premise of the musical is simple enough—the audience has been invited to a man's urban apartment to listen to his favorite Broadway musical cast album from the 1920s titled The Drowsy Chaperone. Our host, simply called “Man in Chair” is played with affable quirkiness by Jonathan Crombie. He deftly conducts the musical from start to finish.

As “The Man” plays us his favorite album, the musical literally pours out of every part of his apartment (even the refrigerator!). It is a raucous, high-energy romp that plays in one hundred and forty minutes with no intermission. It is unapologetically fluffy and we don't care at all.

The plot of the eponymous musical follows the upcoming nuptials of diva Janet Van de Graff (Andrea Chamberlain) to her straight-laced beau, Robert Martin (Mark Ledbetter). Janet has announced her retirement from show business much to the chagrin of her producer Feldzeig (Clif Bemis) who is in deep with the mob—here represented by gangsters disguised as bakers (and played by real life twins Paul and Peter Riopelle). Of course, overseeing all of them is the drunken Ethel Merman-esque Chaperone (played with scenery chewing ebullience by Nancy Opel).

The Drowsy Chaperone is as much a tribute to musicals of all ages as it is a lampoon of some of the worse trends in Broadway both past and present. One hilarious scene that opens the second act reenacts a musical that is very similar to The King and I. Our host, referring to the leading actor who has now played both a Latin lothario and the Asian king, says he is “a man of a thousand accents. All of them offensive.” The Man constantly comments on how our contemporary sensibilities have changed and not always for the better.

Another show-stopping number (and there are many), our host warns us to ignore the “terrible” lyrics. He tells us the song is wonderful, but the lyrcis are terrible. I won't spoil it for anyone, but suffice it to say, our heroine proceeds to sing some of the most intentionally laughable lyrics ever to be presented on an American stage—and that's saying something.

Chaperone is a throwback to musicals like Guys and Dolls and 42nd Street. Considering the entire musical is set in a man's small apartment, the settings, costumes, etc. are lavish and creative.

This is one not to miss. I had a great time from start to finish and laughed throughout. The Man in the Chair tells us that when he sits in the audience at the theatre he always prays, (and I paraphrase) “God, please let it be good.” Well, for now our prayers have been answered.          Review by Timothy Baxter-Ferguson

Timothy Baxter-Ferguson is the chair of the theatre program at Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina. He is a member of the Playwrights in Progress at Theatre Charlotte. His plays have been produced all over the United States.

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BILLY JONAS
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
ImaginOn
McColl Family Theatre
November 9-10, 2007

As anyone in my family would attest, I’m a John Wayne fan from way back. It probably has something to do with the time-space continuum… i.e. I’m an old timer who was raised in the prairie states and mountains, and the one thing there’s plenty of out there is space. So what does that have to do with the Billy Jonas show at the ImaginOn this past weekend? Well, here it is—in one of his early Western films, the Duke told a young man, “Don’t apologize, boy, makes a man look weak.” Or something like that.

But goldang it, John, I’m gonna hafta let ya down and start out with an apology. Folks, my notes from the show last night at ImaginOn are just plumb useless, so please forgive my disjointed recounting on the proceedings.

You see, I took my grandson to the Billy Jonas show, and the notes I took would stymie the best code-breakers in the CIA. Under optimum conditions, my handwriting looks like prescriptions scrawled by an MD with a twitch. And that’s when the lights are on. But when I’m sitting in the dark and the action on stage is going along at breakneck speed and the kids in the place are jumping and waving and yelling and laughing like they’ve all been tickled by the same giggle-feather, there’s just no way my notes are any help at all. Here’s an example from one page of my notepad; “eyes wide open--arms folded like eyes and then like roof top.” Huh?! It may not compute on paper, but it sure worked on stage. And… well, let’s start from the top.

I didn’t know what to tell my grandson about the show beforehand because all I knew was something about weird instruments and audience participation. So the best I could come up with was, “You’ll love it, Sport.” Pretty lame. But the truth is that I wasn’t really that sure he’d like it because he’s not an audience participation kind of kid.

But when we took our seats, he saw that the stage was pre-set with an assortment of instruments and stuff that was closer to a Saturday morning yard-sale than anything else. The kid said, “I like it.” Talk about weird! Then I realized that the jumble of junk instruments and clutter in front of us looked like his room--and my home office. OK. We’re on friendly turf here. I took out my note pad as the lights went down, but Jonas got things rolling so quickly I was three songs behind on the first page of notes. What amazed me most was that in a few minutes, my grandson was yelling, jumping, dancing and waving as wildly as any kid in the place.

And it’s no wonder, for the force of Jonas’ performance was irresistible for kid or grownup. His songs were packed with fun and action for the kids and some very insightful humor and political jabs for the adults. He was ably backed by Jake Wolf on guitar and Ashley Farmer who was a back-up singer, demonstrator, cheerleader and choir director all rolled into one.

The main instrument was a jury-rigged drum made from a big plastic trashcan and mounted on skate boards (I think that’s what my note said) and other odds-and-ends. There were also some real drums, big empty buckets, a big plastic 5-gallon water bottle, model boats and toys, a couple of music stands and other leftovers from that yard-sale. Jonas also put on two straps of bells (or other jingly things) around his ankles. “This one’s from Pakistan; this one’s from Toys-R-Us.” Another instrument seemed to be a tall stick that had, uh, jingly things on it and it, could be shaken or thumped on the floor to keep the beat.

Since we were given no printed program or agenda for the evening, it would seem that this troop works a bit off-the-cuff, a practice that gives the performance great spontaneity but is not much help in the note-taking department. Thank goodness for the internet and the lyrics that are posted on Jonas’ website, which is where I also found the correct spelling of the casts’ names (i.e. is it Wolf, Wolfe or Woolf?). Here’s a quick, random recollection of some of the show which was all new to me but seemed very familiar to a good portion of the audience. There was a hilarious Knock-Knock-Joke song sequence that got the kids in the audience involved early and the parents later as the answers got more clever and related to things in their past. I can’t pass them on to you because the jokes rolled by too quickly and the song wasn’t posted on the website.

I think my favorite song was “Old St. Helen” which had the kids making the sounds and hand-motions of an eruption as they sang a refrain that ended with:
Up your nose and down your chest!
A little bit deeper on every breath!
She don’t care your point of view,
Now the mountain’s part of you.
RUMBLE!
And rumble they did.

That’s one specific sample of what went on. There were just too many other things to capture on paper in a short span of time. There was an up-beat rendition of “Pharaoh, Pharaoh! Oh Baby, Let My People Go! Unh! Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!” Another number dealt with a fireworks show and gave the kids a chance to make the appropriate sounds of the fuse burning, the blast off, the piece sailing into the air and exploding, the sparks forming the pattern and falling back to Earth. Not sure but I think the sound sequence was something like. "Ssss, bang, wheeew, boom, ohhhh, ahhhh." At another point, Jonas asked the audience kids to name a topic for a new song, and he then combined two of their suggestions - time travel and fire truck – into an on-the-spot new song that had several verses and a refrain that the audience joined in loudly and almost on key: “not just any fire truck; it’s a very special fire truck, and it travels in time.” Amazing, delightful stuff! And so simple.

For the finale, three kids were invited up on stage, but when ten or so came forward, Jonas passed out instruments or drumsticks to as many as he could and then asked the others to dance along in the finale on the stage. Nobody’s feelings were hurt; no one felt left out. It was that kind of night.

And when we were leaving the building, my grandson asked if we could come back next week and see it again. I had to tell him that the show was only here for one weekend. It was his only disappointment of the night. But when I promised to take him to see Billy Jonas the next time he comes to town, the grin was back. That won’t be much of a sacrifice on my part, because I became an overnight fan myself. And I already know one of the gifts my grandson will find under the tree – a Billy Jonas CD. So no apologies needed, Big John. Sorry about that.   Review by Don Cook

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SHAOLIN WARRIORS
Directed by Li Xining
Produced by Zhang Yu
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Nov. 6, 2007, Belk Theatre

Leaping across the stage like martial artists on the movie screen--but live--22 Chinese monks invaded the PAC. Scenes of the monks' daily rituals were shown. But most compelling were the brilliantly choreographed fights and flights, with up to five monks flipping in unison and alternating with other groups. Two boys, perhaps five years old, also performed the poses and action sequences, sometimes doing half a dozen flips in a continuous sequence. One man made impossible contortions with his body, such as putting his legs behind his head and standing on his hands. Other men also performed feats that should have left blood on the stage, but miraculously did not.

Various backdrops brought the scenery of central China to the Charlotte stage as well. One set showed a large temple. Another depicted three huge Buddha figures. Yet another displayed multiple pagodas and another an abstract wave of natural green. Only the music, too hyped with action movie energy and often too loud, detracted from the meditative intensity of the performative context. The rest of the staging, including the scenes with dry ice fog, fit like a dream.

At times, the monks transformed into animals, as when they crawled on the stage and leapt up like frogs. They also performed a drunken scene with large pots, and then a fight with swords and staff. In another scene, three monks broke metal bars against their foreheads. One cut cabbage against his chest. One of the child monks bit the toe of his shoe with his leg raised and back straight. The monks also snapped whips, or twirled bladed staffs and sticks like batons, all while leaping and keeping just the right distance from each other.

Some of the feats by these monks from a 1500 year old monastery, who meditate and train for hours each day, were simply unbelievable. One bent two wooden spears with the metal tips against his chest. Another lay on top of five such spear points, held aloft by his fellow monks. And two monks lay with a bed of nails between them, while others put a thick slate block on top of them and then smashed it with a sledge hammer.

Such fight scene intensity (even with foil-bladed swords) and mind-over-matter stunts served not only as entertainment, but also to show the spiritual planes that a human being may achieve, through dedication to a ritual craft. Yet, the beauty of the displays also revealed an artful, collective imagination--as when one monk rolled along the ground and others popped up before he hit them, like a wave of saffron-robbed spirits. The monks also invited audience members up onstage at several points, connecting all of us to their physically spiritual world. Thus, even without a clear narrative or explanation of scenes and rites, the Charlotte audience glimpsed something sacred, from half way around the world, which may serve to enlighten us.              Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice . His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

*For those who missed the Shaolin Warriors performance, video clips of the show may be seen .....here

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CIRQUE DREAMS: JUNGLE FANTASY
Created and directed by Neil Goldberg
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Ovens Auditorium,
Oct. 30-Nov. 4, 2007

For fans of Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian circus cum performance art company, this American version may bring some delight, yet also disappoint. But for those who are new to such a postmodern circus event, combining acrobatics, gymnastics, juggling, and clowning with artful displays of song and dance, plus magical scenery and costumes, this introduction will probably whet the appetite for even more.

Unlike a traditional American circus, cirque shows have no live animals. But this one presents amazing fantasy creatures: animal-human hybrids that delight and surprise the senses. It also shows astounding feats of athletic prowess--even on the limited stage of Ovens Auditorium.

The only narrative here is a journey through a Dr. Seuss-like forest, with Lion King-like costumes and masks. A couple of clowns start the show off by pulling ostensible audience members up to the stage and getting them to imitate silly tricks. The silliness continues with a jazz-singing Lady Bug and a tall male Soul Tree wearing an electronic violin. These two appear again and again throughout the show, along with a couple Emus made of human legs and one arm with a bill-like hand. The Emus get their own song at one point, graduating from E.M.U. with much quackery. But other parts of this cirque show present truly "awesome" sights (as my teenage son put it).

Spectators will find themselves clapping almost continuously with admiration at times--with acts that are difficult to describe in words. Early on, there's some multiple jump-rope magic. There are women, or "lizards," balancing beautifully together, while bending backwards in impossible curves (at one point with just sticks under their mouths). There's a "frog" juggling bouncing balls. There are "butterflies" that float through the air, hanging on twirled sheets. There are "apes" that juggle big cubes and circles. There's a human "snake" that rolls inside a large wheel. Often such acts become strangely mesmerizing, not just as circus tricks, but also by showing new mixtures of animal, human, and geometric shapes. Also, numerous costumes and mutating lights, with a huge painted backdrop and pulsing tree trunks, continually increase the sensual awe.

So, if you're ready for a series of surprising dreams that combine fine athletics, engaging clown tricks, and somewhat silly songs and dances, with artful fantasies and hybrid shapes, involving American, Canadian, Russian, Ukrainian, and Mongolian performers, this cirque's for you.              Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice . His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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THE COMMEDIA PIED PIPER
By Lane Riosley
Directed by Jill Bloede
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
October 26-November 4, 2007

First, a little backstory: I love the centuries-old Italian Commedia dell’ arte style because of its familiar characters and the script flexibility that allows it to be adapted to the local situations and political issues. I also like its simple and transportable sets and the frequent spasms of slapstick humor that any fan of the Three Stooges will recognize immediately. So I was looking forward to this show at the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and confident that my grandson would enjoy it as much as I.

However, a couple of days before we were scheduled to go, I asked my grandson if he liked the story of the Pied Piper, a tale that I had learned by heart before I could read. He didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. Amazing! Especially since this seven-year-old kid is an advanced reader who has books stashed all over the house. My retelling of the story didn’t help much. He was okay with the piper getting rid of the rodents, but he became visibly upset when I got to the part about the piper leading the kids away from the town… and their parents. I assured him that everything would come out fine, but he was less enthused than he had been previously.

My worries deepened a bit more as we stood in the ImaginOn lobby and I looked at the cast list in the program. Four actors? Impossible. The Pied Piper story needs a cast of DeMillean proportions. In addition to the main characters – the piper and the mayor - there has to be a big supporting cast of kids, parents and townspeople. I know theater budgets are being slashed, but this is ridiculous. My enthusiasm was a little more forced than before.

Once we got into the theatre, my grandson perked up immediately. On the stage proper was a small proscenium stage (think big puppet show) with a landscape backdrop that seemed to make things less foreboding than the kids-snatched-for-ransom plot I had predicted. He grinned for the first time. The grin got even bigger when the cast came on stage and began talking to us in wonderful faux-Italian accents that paid homage to the Commedia dell’ arte characters they would use to portray the Pied Piper story. He squealed in delight, “I know them, Papa. They were at my school.” All right! Things are looking better. Let the show begin.

And quite a show it was. After some early slight of hand to get the Pied Piper of Hamlin story into the Big Book of Stories--a stated pre-requisite for staging by this group--the four-person cast dove easily into and out of the play-within-a-play and its not-so-DeMillean list of characters and costumes. In addition to playing the familiar commedia characters, they also used simple little devices to signify multitudes of Hamlin citizenry, kids, and animals. The horde of rodents was done with mouse nose-and-whiskers on the actors’ faces and sock puppets on each hand – a technique that seemed more Jim Henson than Cecil B. The cast noted the ridiculousness-of-scale by making asides about it to the kids in the audience – another familiar Commedia bit that I like. At another point, audience kids were asked to get involved in a protest rally by waving protest signs, which they did with gusto. And before the Piper was hired to get rid of the rats, the mayor tried a number of other critters (cats, dogs, ducks, eagles, a hilarious possum and a caterpillar), Each had its own title of nobility, as in “the Earl of Eagles” and “the Countess of Caterpillars.”

All in all, it was a fun night with humorous twists and turns that kids and parents got on different levels. The rats’ anthem, “We Are The Rats Of Hamlin Town” switched from present tense to past as they followed the piper into the mountains. The faux-Italian accent slipped lightly from the tongues and became faux-country, with rats sounding like a derivative of southern fried “rights” getting a laugh by the parents. And the line “Rats have no rights” seemed all too familiar in this post-9/11 era and our skewed interpretation of the Constitution. That political jab – intended or accidental - was also true to the commedia heritage.

The production also used bits of stage business that were like the commedia’s traditional lazzi, a not-too distant relative of the Yiddish shtick. The most memorable was when Rosetta unrolled a backdrop of a mountain landscape to show the audience how far away the piper was taking the rats. She was rudely (and funnily) interrupted by the mayor who pushed her aside and got rid of the mountain backdrop. The same thing happened when she was telling the audience about the children being led away. It’s probably one of those you-had-to-be-there bits that was funnier on stage than in the telling.

All four members of the cast: Ashby Blakely, Leslie Ann Gilese, Darlene Parker Black, and Stephen Seay were up to the task, handling their multiple roles with the enthusiasm and a let’s-just-have-some-fun attitude that not only is the right approach for children’s theatre, but for any professional commedia troop. For make no mistake, these four are professionals who do children’s theatre because they love it. And it shows.

As we were leaving, I asked my grandson who he liked best and he couldn’t pick one at first because he felt like all four actors were his friends. I couldn’t argue with that. And then as we got to the car, he said, "I liked Arleqin best because he was funniest.” I couldn’t argue with that either, for that is another commedia tradition that has endured through the years.              Review by Don Cook

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DRACULA
Adapted from the novel by Bram Stoker
Directed by Michael R. Simmons
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre
October 18-November 3, 2007

For those who are passionate about vampires, CAST's Dracula does not disappoint. There are three very bewitching female vamps (Tamara Stephenson, Beth Simpson, and Brooke Rash), who bring the seductive allure and horrific bestiality of this popular mythic figure to the intimacies of CAST's two theatres--both of which are used in this show. There is Nosferatu himself (played uncannily by the director Michael Simmons) who controls them with menacing threats, as well as the treat of a baby to consume, and yet also mesmerizes the mortals to gain access to their bodies and animal passions. And there are the sympathetic mortals--Lucy (played with sinister grace by Christy Edney) and Mina (played stoically by Erin Fogle)--who gradually succumb to Dracula's hypnotic gaze and perverse ways.

Simmons creates Dracula as a truly scary yet charming character, evoking, through his female apprentices and victims, the profound paradox of this myth. Humans share with mammals the beautiful drive of maternal nurturing, but also the terrifying instincts of our carnal and carnivorous appetites--driven beyond reason or civility by our immortal genes, reproducing and surviving, through us. As we enter the world, each of us is extremely vulnerable in our mother's care, shaped by accidental influences and dangers in a very flexible human environment. So, the seductive, blood-lusting women of Dracula--with their leader baring his breast and giving blood from it to convert mortal women to his immortal hunger--draw on a deep darkness in each of our psyches, no matter how ideal a childhood we may have had.

This show struggles to convey the novel's plot by jumping through brief scenes and moving the audience to new spaces (with two intermissions between the three acts). Perhaps it is also competing with the many movie versions of the myth, including the recent popularity of Anne Rice's novels onscreen. A musical soundtrack with lyrics accompanies some scenes--distracting from the actor's dialogue. And the drama becomes difficult to fully embrace, despite the seductive imagery, because of the melodramatic acting and fragmentary plot. Yet, audiences may fill in the story and add to the special effects with their own fears and desires, nightmares and dreams, to make this Dracula not only a Halloween treat, but also an insightful theatrical trick, as the show grows throughout the month of October. (Free food from Fuel Pizza on Friday nights may help spectators' appetites to engage with the show as well--perhaps as a substitute for more carnal desires.)              Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice . His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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THE MUSICAL ADVENTURES OF FLAT STANLEY
Based on the book by Jeff Brown
The Book of the Musical written by Timothy A. McDonald
Music & lyrics by Bryan Louiselle
Directed by Timothy McDonald
Choreography by Steven G. Kennedy
Costumes by Theresa Quire
Executive Producer Stephen Gabriel
McGlohon Theatre
October 27, 2007

Cartoony, campy, and cute – just perfect for the Sesame Street and Nickelodeon set. This is the tale of Stanley Lambchop who goes to bed a normal, three dimensional, ten year old boy and wakes up as two dimensional “Flat Stanley” after being flattened by his bulletin board. (I wondered how you make a person two-dimensional, now I know.) Stanley is played with great animation by John Ambrosino.

Mrs. Lambchop is played by perky, Rebecca Kutz. Mr. Lambchop is very “punnily” played by Jamieson Lindenburg. Younger brother, Arthur, is played expressively by Nanci Zoppi.

On his first morning out, the “cool” kids at the bus stop decide to fly Stanley like a kite and leave him in a tree when the school bus comes. Stanley gets down with the help of the Mail Woman, Mrs. Hermes, played by Ashley Eileen Bucknam. Stanley wants to find his purpose, explore the world, see it all, do it all…..before he becomes a grown up.

Thus Stanley starts his journey around the world by getting folded and mailed to various destinations. This cast of five and traveling crew of three manage to send Stanley to: Los Angeles, Washington, DC to meet another fine flat fellow, the Declaration of Independence; to the Louvre in Paris where he hobnobs with the “Moaning Lisa” and Johnnie, the Blue Boy and manages to foil a cat burglar in her attempt to steal these masterpieces, and finally to Hawaii for a reunion with his family.

The music was loud, and rhythmic and kept the pre-school to 10 year olds clapping and moving. Only one little one was removed for crying and I noticed one tiny tot who was dancing on his mother’s lap for almost the entire performance. The four members of the cast other than Stanley, had at least six roles each to change in and out of to keep the action rolling; a true ensemble piece. After three shows in one day, they must have been exhausted. Wonder if all the seat dancing made the audience tired or energized?              Review by Karen Lambruschi

Karen Lambruschi has been involved in theatre in South Carolina for over a dozen years as a stage manager, teacher, director and (under duress) an actress. She is currently on the board of Rock Hill Community Theatre and works in North Carolina in the entertainment industry.

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LATE NITE CATECHISM
By Vicki Quade & Maripat Donovan
Featuring Kimberly Richards
Production Design by Marc Silvia
North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
October 16-28, 2007, at the Booth Playhouse

Late Nite Catechism made me feel like it was 1965 and I was back in Sister Mary Alfred’s fifth grade class at St. Margaret’s Catholic School. For my husband and I, both cradle Catholics, as well as the rest of the class--oh, I mean audience—had a fabulous time revisiting the good old days of parochial schools. Please note that Sister, played by Kimberly Richards, in full habit including wimple and gimp, does not tolerate disobedience from her rowdy students. Don’t chew gum—you’ll have to spit it out in a tissue and give Sister a dollar. If you’re a female, don’t wear anything low cut or she’ll give you a tissue that you have to wear as an impromptu “dickie”. On the bright side, you could be chosen as intermission monitor and be given a laminated holy card.

This one woman interactive show supposedly set in an adult Catechism class, works best if you know at least a little about the Catholic Church and can join in the fun. Most of Wednesday nights’ audience was Catholic and had attended Catholic Schools--as indicated by an enthusiastic show of hands--and they “got” all the in jokes about things like the Immaculate Conception and Holy Days of Obligation that roll this show along. It is surprisingly respectful of the Catholic Church and it is very obvious that Ms. Richards and the rest of us are laughing with the church and not at the church. Ms. Richards has been a member of this very funny order of nuns for six years and has done extended tours around the country in the role. She is so good that as she was explaining the process of becoming a nun my husband leaned over and asked me, “Are you sure she’s not a real nun?” The entire piece has a sweet, nostalgic feel and none of the jokes are mean-spirited, but they are funny even if you were a “public” school student and your parents didn’t really care about religious instruction.               Review by Laura Pfizenmayer

Laura Pfizenmayer is a South Carolina playwright and freelance writer. She is a partner in Hometown Promotions, LLC, and a member of Playwrights In Progress at Theatre Charlotte.

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THE WIZARD OF OZ
Directed by Alan Poindexter
Music and Lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg
Background music by Herbert Stothart
Dance and Vocal Arrangements by Peter Howard
Orchestration by Larry Wilcox
Adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company
Based upon the book by L. Frank Baum
and the Classical Motion Picture owned by Turner Entertainment Co.
Distributed in all media by Warner Bros.
September 28 – October 28, 2007, Children's Theatre of Charlotte

The movie version of the Wizard Of Oz is so deeply imbedded in our memories and our culture that it seems almost impossible to watch a stage version without comparing the production and the performances to the film. So two questions come front and center: How could local actors (in a children’s theatre no less) hope to stand up to Hollywood icons like Judy, Bert, Ray, Jack, Frank, Billie et al? And how in the world could a stage production compete with the memorable scenes and images in the film? The answer to both questions is: Very well indeed!

My now-seven-years-old grandson and I attended the opening night and came away wowed by everything. And why not? The acting, singing and dancing were all solid, the songs and dialog were comfortably familiar, and the opening night audience was packed with parents, sibs, kinfolk and neighbors of the kids in the cast. And that’s all right, for the kids in the cast were wonderful - every munchkin and flying monkey was right on. In fact, I think I liked this group of kids better than the little people who were in the movie.

All the adults came through like champs too, handling their dual roles with ease and believability. As Dorothy, Caroline Bower was perfect throughout, and it didn’t take long to set aside the quibbling suspicion that, like Judy, she was a little too old for the role. Her three companions on the yellow-brick road -- Ben Mackel (the Scarecrow), Marcus Sherman (the Tin Man) and Jill Bloede (the Cowardly Lion) -- wore their roles as comfortably as they did their costumes, and they seemed to be having as much fun as the audience. Amy van Looy was a predictably sweet and loveable Glinda, the good witch who makes her entrances and exits in a bubble; Alan Poindexter, the Wicked Witch of the West, let his costume and performance go deliciously over the top. And while my grandson’s choice of favorite performers was a toss-up between Barbi Van Schaick who played Toto and the kids who played the munchkins and flying monkeys, my favorite was Steven Ivey who was Professor Marvel and the Wizard. He turned both roles into funny, loveable con men who can’t help being nice.

The staging was extremely creative. The Kansas landscape was a beautifully rendered backdrop that suggested the expanse and splendor of the Great Plains. And despite some pre-opening hype about the high costs of this production, many of its most effective devices were its simplest. For instance, the farm buildings were suggested by raising the corners of curtains to form the outline of a farmhouse (or maybe it was a barn). And the gate to Oz, which was immense and formidable in the film, was mounted on a small rolling platform on stage - a reduction in scale that didn’t matter at all. My grandson couldn’t decide which he liked best-- the skeletal trees that hung like stalactites from above, or the huge colorful, umbrella-shaped flowers that were big enough to hide the munchkins. All worked well despite – or maybe because of -- their simplicity.

However there were also a number of more complex technical effects that drew applause from the audience. The tornado that swept Dorothy from Kansas to Oz had kids and parents gasping as roiling clouds, debris, thunder and lightening seemed to fill every corner of the auditorium. I’m not sure, but I think I spotted a cow like the one that went air-borne in the Twister film. I do know I saw a witch fly by on a broomstick just like in the movie--- I didn’t expect that and I laughed out loud. My grandson was eating it up, even as he huddled closer to me at the storm’s height. My other favorite effect was the large Wizard’s mirror or glass (or whatever that gadget is called) in which images swirled mysteriously about like a lava lamp on steroids.

As might be expected, there were also some minor opening night glitches - curtains getting stuck on corners of platforms; the cloth strips that formed the yellow brick road getting folded over; but nothing of any consequence. Well, maybe there was one irksome thing that could have been avoided. When the clouds from the impending storm rolled wildly across the Kansas sky, they also streamed across the side of Professor Marvel’s wagon which was sitting firmly downstage on the prairie. It ruined the illusion for me and took me out of the moment. But it was over quickly and, all in all, that small list of gripes is just to prove that I was paying attention.

As we walked out of the theatre, I had fully expected my grandson to say he liked it “almost as much as the movie.” That never happened. He only raved about the show we had just seen. So in looking back, this production has nothing to lose by comparison to the film. It’s a show that can stand on its own feet. A show the cast, crew and all the folks at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte can be proud of.            Review by Don Cook

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MANUSCRIPT
By Paul Grellong
Directed by Glenn T. Griffin
October 11-27, 2007, at the Duke Power Theatre
Produced by Queen City Theatre Company

Produced by the same company that brought us the enormously popular and entertaining Sordid Lives, I was eager to attend another production produced by the Queen City Theatre Company. The equally sordid thriller I witnessed was equally well-produced and almost as successful. Trading over-the-top farce for subtle wordplay, Manuscript challenges its audience.

Without giving too much away (for the fun of the play is watching the play turn in on itself, forcing the viewer to reevaluate what we think we know) the play follows the entanglements of three ivy league freshman during their holiday break. The diminuative yet powerful John Wray plays the enigmatic David, an ambitious writer with a passion for pro wrestling--which he sees as "the last legitmate form of modern dance." Kristian Wedolowski portrays David's school chum, Chris, and Heidy Ludden plays the amoral sociopath, Elizabeth.

Throughout the play alliances are formed and broken and what we think is true is never the case. The three actors do a nice job of never tipping their hand too much. We always believe them even though we know we shouldn't. Wedolowski, whose Chris is usually seen as the typical over-priviledged WASP, transforms the character with his thick accent and peculiar grace. Where the script seems to call for an "innocent" golden boy so common in our East Coast prep schools, Wedolowski creates an outsider whose "innocence" stems from his unfamiliarity with the culture. This seemed to work more often than not, the clear difference in the ages of the school chums was harder to ignore, though both Wedolowski and Wray had nice chemistry together.

Heidy Ludden is the vampy seductress, Elizabeth. She plays her with enough warmth to make her actions interesting and watchable. Again, her accent became a part of the character. In a play that seems to be lampooning the upper crust of WASP culture, the choice of actors made this message more universal. Since Queen City Theatre Company aims to explore the human experience, this seems fitting.

John Wray's David, a Jewish writer struggling to make a name for himself, is probably closest to Grellong's vision. Without giving too much away, Wray's motivations are always crystal clear and he was a joy to watch throughout the play.

The setting was appropriately simply, consisting of an enormous bed and cage-like bookshelves. Costuming was elegant and appropriate--though David's first costume made him look even younger and truly emphasized the difference in age between he and Wedolowski.

All in all, the play's the thing. This company managed to keep me intrigued and invested. This is a taut and interesting revenge tale.           Review by Tim Baxter-Ferguson

Tim Baxter-Ferguson is an associate professor of Theatre at Limestone College and Chair of that program. He is a resident playwright at Theatre Charlotte and has has his plays produced throughout the United States and Canada.

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THE RAT PACK IS BACK!
Written by Sandy Hackett and Dick Feeney
Directed by Ben Lokey
Musical Direction by Lon Bronson
Produced by Dick Feeney and Sandy Hackett
Produced by Arthur Petrie
Lighting design by Christilyn Lake
(All of the aforementioned are part of the original creative team
along with DonLee Cardejon.)
September 25-October 21, McGlohon Theatre at Spirit Square

The McGlohon Theatre has been magically transformed into an intimate Vegas Club with the addition of a deco style proscenium designed by Gillian Albinski and installed by The Hohman Group. Also, the removal of most of the front orchestra seats and the presence of bistro tables and chairs, along with the wait staff to bring beverages and snacks out to you, makes the transformation work.

“In the Beginning…..” there was the voice of God (Buddy Hackett) telling: "the boys” they had to return for one more show…” This was followed by a nostalgic montage of black & white film clips showing movie, fashion and music icons of the sixties along with shots of the billboards and signs along the Vegas Strip of that era, cumulating in the reversal of the implosion of The Sands Resort.

The memories of childhood, watching film in black & white again, is carried throughout the show. Other than Sammy’s brown suit and a few flowers and sight gags, everything is black, white or gray.

The jokes are a little risqué, but this is supposed to be Vegas, and almost anything goes there. The jokes are timeless, only a few modernized lines, (the mentioning of Viagra is an updated insertion). I loved the line about the Native Americans taking back America one casino at a time.

Dean Martin, beautifully portrayed by Bobby Mayo Jr., sang several tunes that took me back to my childhood. Loved the way he sang “That’s Amore.” Heard several people afterward mention it brought tears to their eyes, or smiles at the memories it invoked.

Nicholas Orestes Brook was impressive as Sammy Davis Jr.; I wanted to sing and dance along with “That Old Black Magic,” and “What Kind of Fool am I?” but when he got to “Mr. Bojangles” I got chills running up and down my spine.

The irreverent and irrepressible Joey Bishop was played (or maybe improvised is a better word) magnificently by Sandy Hackett, son of the comedian, Buddy Hackett. Author, actor, vocalist, comedian and producer are a few of the titles Sandy Hackett can call himself. The Catskill or Vegas style schtick along with the continual audience interaction and constant improvisation made for some fantastic running jokes throughout the show.

Les Lankhorst has taken on the role of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, with remarkable ease. “Come Fly with Me,” ”I’ve Got you Under my Skin,” and “Fly Me to the Moon,” brought back memories of evenings at my grandmother’s. Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without “My Way” or “New York, New York.”

The soft-shoe during “Me and My Shadow” with Frank and Sammy was wonderful. The hilarious hi-jinx (especially like those during “A Foggy day in London Town”), the ribald jokes, the inter-play between the cast makes this more of a historical reenactment than a play. The ensemble pieces like “Luck be a Lady Tonight” and “The Lady is a Tramp” had many in the audience chair dancing.

Several times the on-stage orchestra was brought into the mix. They were introduced as Charlotte’s “Best Little Orchestra” comprising local musicians. Piano player, Adam Watkins; bass player, Tom Hildreth; drummer, Rick Dior; saxophone players, Phil Thompson, Will Campbell, Tim Gordon, and Jack Murray; trumpet players, Ron Turner, Brad Wilcox, Jon Thorton; and trombone players, Mark Munson and Brent Ballard.

By the way, have I mentioned that I love this show?           Review by Karen Lambruschi

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THE SUBLET EXPERIMENT
By Ethan Youngerman
Directed by Joe Copley
Collaborative Arts Theatre
October 4-20, 2007, various apartments around Charlotte

The Sublet Experiment is something of an event play, in that it takes place in an actual apartment. Like plays that are written to take place in a bar or an art gallery, the apartment itself becomes like a character that helps create its own particular ambiance. The opening night apartment was in the SouthPark area. Other venues will be used during the run of the play, and this is challenging for director and actors alike because, unless the apartments are exact duplicates, it will call for additional work as they make sure their movement flows well in the given space.

The apartment on opening night had clean lines and simple, but tasteful furnishings. It was well chosen because of the open floor plan so that when the actors are in the kitchen area you can still see and hear them behind the counter. The front door can be seen from the far end of the living room where most of the audience sits. There is little feeling of claustrophobia even though it’s close quarters, yet sitting so close to the action may be uncomfortable for some audience members. (I found it interesting and enjoyable.)

The play itself is a clever comedy that was first produced in New York City. It’s difficult to think of any other city where apartments are more desired, fought over, and expensive. People sublet all the time and although this may seem a strange practice to some, the truth is, if you get a good apartment in New York you’re never going to let it go! If you leave the country or state, take a temporary job across the pond, whatever, you will sublet until you die, or get back there, whichever comes first.

Joe Copley has done an admirable first time directing job with this play. He has drawn good performances from all his actors. Lee Thomas plays Eric, a man who supposedly designs bathtubs, who advertises for an “unusual” sublet arrangement, thus the “experiment” of the title. He’s an actor who can effectively express emotions with understated charm, yet can turn on a dime when it’s called for in the script. He’s well matched by Kristen Jones as Melanie (his real life wife), who is very believable as the confused and confusing woman who takes on the challenge of the sublet arrangement.

Jim Yost, more familiar to some as Artistic Director of Bare Bones Theatre Group, and director of many of their fine productions, capably plays Harry, a crude guy who thinks he has a brain because he can recite statistics, facts, and figures to back up his various schemes. He and Patrick Howsare as “man” provide some of the more zany comic moments. His character shows up later in the play as someone who has been kicked off a reality TV show but can’t seem to accept it, and manically strategizes to get back on the show.

The play is performed without an intermission; it did tend to get warm in the room, but this can be adjusted. It is also a bit stretched out towards the end. But these are minor quibbles.

Identity is the central theme here. Are we the same person, even if we try to change everything about ourselves—-different name, new apartment, job title? This comedy suggests that “wherever you go, there you are.” The fun is in the journey to discovery of these characters. The Sublet Experiment is research well worth examining.            Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a writer, and producer/editor of ARTS à la Mode.

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HAVING OUR SAY
By Emily Mann
From the book by Sarah L. Delany & A. Elizabeth Delany
with Amy Hill Hearth
Directed by Corey Mitchell
October 11-14, 2007, at the Afro-American Cultural Center
Co-produced with Theatre Charlotte

Through this play we meet Miss Sadie Delany, a former school teacher, who is 103 years old, and her sister, Dr. Bessie Delany, a retired dentist, who is 101 years old. We also meet many others through their story-telling. We learn about various family members, including their father, born into slavery, who became "the first negro Episcopal bishop in the U.S.A." We also learn about the "rebbies" in their hometown of Raleigh, the whites who mistreated them and other blacks throughout the Jim Crow years. These poignant yet often humorous stories at times evoke friction between the sisters. But most of their conflict is with people in the past, over whom they have now triumphed, by surviving beyond the evils of racism, greed, and revenge. The Delany sisters thus share the secret of their longevity: "We laugh at ourselves."

Corlis Hayes, as Sadie, and Myrna Key, as Bessie, do an excellent job in conveying the stiff bodies, life-loving energy, and distinct personalities of these wise women, who describe themselves as "sugar" and "spice," respectively. Yet, the old-age make-up on their faces looks a bit false, even from the back of the small AACC auditorium. The overall performance becomes static at times, with most of the first act placed on one side of the stage, in the Delany's sitting room, and no present conflict, other than minor disputes about which stories to tell or which pan to use as the sisters set the table and fix a meal for us--their guests. But the set and props also tell a story about the sisters' skillful hospitality (thanks to stage manager and technical director Sultan "Omar" El-Amin). And the acting is carefully shaped by the director, Corey Mitchell, to make the sisters, in different ways, both believable as real people and representative of many others.

Perhaps then, through this performance, we can all feel connected to these women, like members of our own family. For, in having their say, they proclaim: "It's good to be in America"--despite all they suffered as black women. The Delany sisters are thus eager to share a joyful wisdom, well earned, that may be mostly about past stories, yet still speaks to us today about how to balance the bitterness of memory and the sweetness of forgiveness in order to survive.            Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice . His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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THE CLEAN HOUSE
By Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Scott Ripley
September 14 - October 6, 2007
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte

Why do some people enjoy cleaning a house while others (most of us) do not? In Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House, such questions hint toward metaphysical significance, yet fall back upon the absurdities of life.

Lane (Claudia Carter Covington) is a successful doctor, so she doesn't want to clean her home. Her Brazilian maid, Matilde (Adyana de la Torre), who is in her late 20s, recently lost both her parents. Her mother died laughing at one of her father's jokes; then he shot himself. Thus, Matilde doesn't have the heart to do her job for Lane. But Lane's sister, Virginia (Elyse Williams), comes to the rescue. She enjoys conquering dirt. She has neither career nor children. (She didn't want to bring kids into the world and watch them get rotten with it.) So, cleaning gives her life meaning--until Lane discovers that Matilde has made a deal with Virginia to clean for her and fires them both.

The play's plot twists continue like an absurdist tele-novella or magical-realist soap-opera, with imaginary characters seen in real life by others, and with apples tossed in the ocean landing in a living room. But, despite some charming moments, the two-dimensional characters do not develop fully engaging conflicts. They find easy answers, despite life-shaking dilemmas.

Matilde says she feels dirty inside without laughter, so she eventually thinks up the "perfect joke." But most of the jokes she tells are in Portuguese and that ultimate one is shared only with Ana (Jorja Ursin), the lover of Lane's husband Charles (Martin Thompson). Their affair enrages Lane, but she soon makes friends with Ana, by becoming her doctor, when Ana refuses to return to the hospital for cancer treatment. This refusal is odd, since Ana met her "soul mate" Charles (also a doctor) there and was eager for a mastectomy when first diagnosed by him. But, for some reason, she'd prefer not to go to the hospital. So Matilde helps her out with the perfect joke.

The set by Chip Decker is beautifully designed to show both Lane's living room and Ana's beachfront balcony. We even get a bit of Alaska (where Charles goes to get a special tree that might save Ana's life.) And there are pools of water for an ocean swim and to ritually bathe Ana. Strong efforts are given by all the actors, especially Adyana de la Torre and Jorja Ursin, who perform bilingually and with bicultural charm. Ruhl's script was performed recently at major theatres: Yale Repertory and Lincoln Center. This would seem to make for a winning combination. Yet, the postmodern absurdity fails to enlighten--like a joke that's lost in translation, perhaps, until we get to heaven. Or, is that the point? Laugh now, anyway, even if you don't understand.            Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice . His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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OLIVER!
Music & Lyrics by Lionel Bart
Directed by Billy Ensley
Choreographed by Linda Booth
Musical direction by Harry Owens
Theatre Charlotte, September 13-30, 2007

Dickens classic + talented direction and choreography + talented cast + timeless music = great entertainment, OLIVER!

Theatre Charlotte is presenting OLIVER! under the superb direction of Billy Ensley, choreography of Linda Booth, and musical direction of Harry Owens. Technical directors; Biff Edge (set), Jamey Varnadore (costumes), and John Hartness (lighting), perfectly re-create the time period and atmosphere.

Andrew Griner is wonderful as Oliver Twist. His voice, his facial expressions, and demeanor all add up to a great performance by this young actor. Will Branner, the Artful Dodger, is colorful both literally and figuratively. He does a great 2 step shuffle throughout the play utilizing his whole body instead of more limited body language.

Mike Collins as Fagin shows off his comic timing and fancy footwork throughout all his scenes. He is hilarious in “Reviewing the Situation” and the reprise with the Dodger. Loved it. Craig Estep is great as Mr. Bumble; his duet with the Widow Corney, Patti Jones, “I Shall Scream,” is hysterical. Kathryn Stamas as Nancy, and Heather Leanna as Bet, are showcased in “It’s a Fine Life,” and Nancy’s solo, “As Long as He Needs Me,” is fantastic. Patrick Ratchford, as Bill Sykes, is one scary guy. He is so big, bad and brooding that he physically overpowers the rest of the cast; no one comes close to him in stature or portrays evil as affectively or effortlessly.

The orphans are not just boys in the workhouse, they are a mixed cast, and it works. Amazingly, the highest note hit is sung by a boy. There are many other great character actor performances; Bob Tully is fantastic as both Mr. Sowerberry, and a drunken sot in the Three Cripples Inn scene.

The accents are consistent throughout the play; what a marvel to be able to maintain the accents with a cast that has so many young performers. Come out to this play, and you'll have a thoroughly enjoyable time.               Review by Karen Lambruschi


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OMNIUM GATHERUM
By Theresa Rebeck & Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros
Directed by Michael Simmons
Sept 14 - 23, Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
Duke Power Theatre, Spirit Square

Some of the best acting of the year is taking place again with the revival of CAST's Omnium Gatherum. Even if you don't want to shell out an extra $20 to have dinner onstage, prior to the show, it's a shame to miss the dinner party performance that follows (which can be purchased separately). CAST has created an elaborate set to surround the audience, transforming the entire space of the Duke Power Theatre into a dining room, with the play's characters at a central table.

This inviting and timely play ponders our fears and responsibilities, as a wealthy country, threatened by terrorism and our own righteous rage--after 9/11. We experience the sophisticated, comical, and often contentious conversations between the hostess Suzie and her seven dinner guests: Khalid (an Arab scholar), Roger (a conservative author of popular novels), Lydia (a vegan feminist), Terence (a charming, drunken Brit), Julia (a black female writer), Jeff (a firefighter), and Mohammed (a terrorist). Mysterious sounds and door panels suggest other rooms offstage--including a fancy bathroom that Julia visits and then describes, upon her return, as a "shrine to your own ****." Yet, the dinner party guests seem to be located in some kind of limbo, both in our world and beyond it, while mentioning a "nasty eternal fire" somewhere near.

Terence jokes that "judgment is so relaxing and fun," but Lydia complains that Roger's use of the word "evil" is a way to "trick people." Several characters wonder together if peace in the world is ever possible, or just a chimera, a child's fairy tale. The tables are often turned as they debate whether Israel is America's moral partner, or whether the American critique of Muslim misogyny is an imposition of one culture's ideals upon another. If human history is "a bloodbath," will the pregnant Lydia still bring her child into the world? Should she tell her long-term boyfriend about her affair with an IRA terrorist (who might be the father of her child)?

When a Muslim terrorist shows up, as Suzie's surprise offering for dessert, the verbal debate turns physically violent, yet also poignant, through Jeff's memories of 9/11. Mohammed insists Americans are worse than terrorists, that we're butchers and liars--massacring native peoples and killing a hundred thousand women and children with the atom bomb. But Khalid, as a fellow Muslim, counters that such terrorists are alienating the very group they're fighting for. He offers a better plan, even as the entire party seems to be "descending into hell."

In the end, they do find a civil solution and a hopeful vision, at least for their own group. Perhaps the audience will, too, through this intimate production and its powerful performances. For this play raises profound questions about our role in the world today, especially as well-off Americans who can afford to go out to dinner or a play.                Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice . His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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AUTOBAHN
by Neil LaBute and
THE MAGIC AND THE MERCURY
by Rolin Jones
Aug. 9-Sept. 8, 2007, Carolina Actors Studio Theatre

We spend one-eighth of our lives in cars, according to a character in Neil LaBute's series of short plays, collectively titled Autobahn. But plays set in cars are certainly much rarer than road movies. Forcing actors to stay in seats, while pretending to drive, limits the expressive interest of their bodies. Yet, CAST has taken on the challenge of presenting seven LaBute pieces, each with two characters trapped inside a car. And four of these plays consist of a long speech by one person, while the other reacts non-verbally, increasing the challenge to the actors and audience. But, as the license plate depicted on the program announces, such a setting is perhaps "The Most American of Spaces," drawing on many associations for each person watching.

The night's journey begins with a traffic ticket the patron receives at the CAST box office, while entering a lobby that's also transformed by the spirit of the play. Along with free food provided by Fuel Pizza, the audience might find an opossum or two already present in the intimate theatre space, with its elaborate design (by Joel Sumner) of tires, car seats and hoods, steering wheel, street signs, and video windows with traveling projections (by Jay Thomas). The first play presented, prior to LaBute's series, is The Magic and the Mercury, with possums Mike (Joshua Ryan) and Joe (Glenn Hutchinson), plus some swerving cars (Joel Sumner), all ably directed by Jenny Wright and Michael Simmons. They draw the audience into a strange, darkly comical world of animal drives--with Mike as a hungry, raunchy daredevil, entranced with death, who loves to make cars swerve, and Joe as an existentially troubled creature with seasonal depression, who asks big questions to engage "the universe." The tone of LaBute's seven plays, which follow this one, are more serious and realistic, yet continue with subtle absurdities and stressed humans in minimalist situations that raise questions about truth, honesty, ethics, and love--like LaBute's Some Girl(s), performed last spring at CAST.

In "Funny," directed by Hutchinson, a mom (Holly Howell) drives her daughter (Leslie Beckham) home from drug rehab. Mom never says a word, but daughter says too much, after learning to be "honest," yet not to give up her desire for marijuana, nor for getting under her mother's skin. In "Bench Seat," directed by Rachael Roberts and Michael Simmons, a Walmart salesgirl (Tamara Stephenson) pressures an engineering grad student (Jonavan Adams), who's parked them on lover's lane, with her fears that they're "breaking up" and a story of terrorizing a former lover like him, after they split at the same spot. "All Apologies," directed by Paige Johnston Thomas, then rounds out the first act, with CAST artistic director and business manager, Michael and Victoria Simmons, playing a husband and wife, parked in their affluent neighborhood. He attempts to apologize and get forgiveness for calling her a nasty word in front of others, yet complains that certain words have lost their meaning, that some cuss words are necessary, and that language holds a "command over us."

Act Two begins with "Merge," directed also by Thomas, involving another sneaky, but revealing plot. A husband (Tom Olson) drives his wife (Beth Pesakoff) home from the airport, taking side streets to avoid traffic on I-77. Her confession of being man-handled in her hotel room, while at a convention in another city without him, gradually changes from a rape story to something even more shocking--for him. Then, in "Road Trip," directed by Roberts and Simmons, a more sinister spirit emerges with an older man (John Xenakis) driving a female student (Karina Roberts-Caporino) twenty-plus hours toward an isolated cabin. He's angry that she fought with him at a rest stop and wants to follow the rules of the road, at least in public, like he taught her in Driver's Ed. But, with an eerie light appearing on his face and his hand fondling her hair while he drives, his Lolita may be in more danger through his rules than she knows. In "Long Division," directed by Thomas, a young man (Hutchinson) drives his friend (Joshua Ryan) to get a PlayStation back from a former girlfriend, encouraging him with stories and weed. Finally, in "Autobahn," directed by Roberts and Simmons, a wife (Thomas) tries to rationalize a complex situation with her silent husband in the driver's seat (Carl McIntyre), as they return home after ending a relationship with their foster son, who stole their car, took the husband's gun to school, and yet accused him later of abuse. She gives further meaning to the play's title by remarking that our society is becoming like the German autobahn, with no speed limit.

All these roles are performed very well by the various actors, not only those with much to say, but also those giving physical expression to their characters while in the tight space of a car seat. The audience is in for a long and challenging journey. But CAST provides much assistance and insight, with food, scenery, video, and a collective desire to share the pleasures and terrors of the road--changing how we experience our cars as theatres. Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice . His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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