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By Richard Wagner
Conducted by James Meena
Directed by Fenlon Lamb
Opera Carolina
Belk Theater
March 22, 27, 30, 2014

Ever been swept away by a romantic adventure movie with supernatural elements? Well, one of Wagner's earliest operas, from 1843, shows the pre-feminist spirit of today's Harlequin romance novel (or of the teen book and film series, Twilight) with ghosts on the high seas and a woman caught between two competing suitors through her father's greed. But it focuses on character, not plot, and on music (or a "soundtrack") that inspires sublime fantasies, with operatic voices longing for freedom, loyalty, and love. The Opera Carolina production (involving the Charlotte Gay Men's Chorus and Arizona Opera's scenery) provides excellent performances, intriguing visuals, and feminist ironies drawn out of the original's sincere passions.

Greer Grimsley stars as the Dutchman, who captains a ship of ghosts because he swore, in the 1700s, that he would sail around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, even if it took forever. So he was condemned by Satan to continue sailing beyond death, but with the dead, until saved by the love of a loyal woman (or until the Day of Judgment). He is only allowed ashore once every 7 years to find her. Grimsley's profoundly strong, bass-baritone voice, long black hair, and tortured, yet stoic poses make him perfect for the role.

He's matched by the powerfully clear resonance and broad gestures of soprano Elizabeth Kataria as Senta, a woman who falls in love, from a young age, with the image of the Dutchman in a legend she's told and painted portrait in her home. Then she finds a ghostly idol bringing her dream to life—and death.

Kristopher Irmiter brings sincere opportunism, yet comical twists, plus impressive bass-baritone tones, to the role of Daland, Senta's father. He meets the Dutchman and his ghost ship at sea, while returning home with his own ship. But, eager for the Dutchman's treasure, he sells his daughter to the stranger, despite the spooks and tattered sails on the other's vessel. When home again, he waddles delightedly, almost penguin-like, encouraging his daughter to marry the "stranger" the very next day.

Tenor Jason Wickson as Erik, Senta's loyal protector on land during her dad's absence, stresses the passionate ironies of this patriarchal fable, giving it more interest today. He insists that she marry him, due to his loyalty, and warns her about the stranger, seen as the "devil" in Erik's prophetic nightmare. But Senta (like a "Team Edward" fan of Twilight) chooses the abject, sublimely cursed Dutchman instead of Erik, following her father's wish and her own teen fantasies to be the one to save the stranger—as an object of "beauty" and "truth" exchanged between the men.

So, the Dutchman, who sings initially about wanting to die and offering pirates his treasure if they would just kill him, ends up using his treasure to buy the loyal love of Senta, after she rejects the loyalty of Erik. Then the Dutchman rejects her, when he learns of Erik, making her prove her loyalty by dying—so he can live, freed from his ghost ship curse, and be on land more often to find another woman.

Director Fenlon Lamb, scene designer Peter Dean Beck, and lighting designer Michael Baumgarten stress such ironies with their startling set contexts and projections. During the overture, a huge picture (projected on the scrim) shifts within its frame, between waves, ship, and sky, while Senta is revealed behind that surface reaching out toward her fantasy portrait and various men onstage. When the ghost ship arrives alongside Daland's, its tattered burlap sails and zombie-stiff sailors, like singing Greek columns (with voices almost lost under the orchestra), foreshadow the patriarchal sufferings in subsequent scenes of living groups of women and men.

The second act shows dozens of women spinning thread in Daland's home, like in a textile factory, plus the big Dutchman portrait that so entrances Senta, while her nurse sings to the others that "spinning" well will get them a good husband. ("You spin" in German is a colloquial phrase today for "You’re crazy.") And then, the lighting shifts from ghostly white to bloody red as the Dutchman grips the back of a chair—meeting the beautiful object of his ironic passions there, an "angel" who is too true to live.

Balancing operatic polish, romantic beauty, and feminist critique, this production of a famous Wagnerian work might also make us wonder whether our current gender, racial, nationalist, and consumer ideals could be a tricky deal with the devil, putting a further twist on the Germanic sublime.          Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. 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. He blogs at

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By Neil LaBute
Directed by Tommy Foster
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
March 6 - 29, 2014

A few words can change a lifetime. Especially if they concern a woman's face not being pretty and they are spoken by her boyfriend. Fights, fantasies, and many vulgarities swirl around the stage for two hours about this incident, which occurs offstage, before the play begins. Soap opera twists and various comic moments add to the play's emphasis on how women today, in the "third wave" of feminism, still see themselves as swimming in a fishbowl, finding their value through the male gaze.

Indeed, audience members are given a fish in a bag of water as their tickets to enter. And Steph (Elizabeth Byland), the woman scorned, threatens to smash her boyfriend's fishbowl, while grilling him about his comment to his buddy that she has a "regular face," not stunningly "hot" like their new blue-collar co-worker. But her boyfriend, Greg (Nick Culp), insists that he also said he'd rather have Steph than a million bucks. This valuing of her inner beauty does not please or appease her, however.

Greg's buddy, Kent (Grant Watkins), has a beautiful wife, Carly (Katherine Murdoch), yet lusts after their new co-worker far more than Greg—even to the point of betraying his wife while she works the night shift. But Greg, having lost Steph due to Kent's lust and Carly's gossip, is more loyal than vengeful, so he resists telling Carly about Kent's betrayal—until she lures it out of him.

Murdoch plays various shades of seduction with both men, bringing tears to play, too, when she gets what she desires yet dreads. Likewise, Byland shows a remarkable range between reckless fury and quiet shifts in awareness. The set, by Tim Baxter-Ferguson (a friend of mine) changes greatly, too, on a revolving stage, between a bedroom, staff break-room, mall food court, Italian restaurant, and baseball field.

The lobby display references Steph's job at a beauty parlor and the fish in the bowl. Yet, corrugated metal walls, warehouse boxes, and "Caution Forklift" signs meet the spectators as they enter the performance space, suggesting the harsh edges and heavy baggage that are revealed behind pretty surfaces and insecurities in the women onstage and the men who love or lust beyond them. The audience is involved, too, in the mall and baseball field settings.

I often wanted more from the script that would develop its tragicomic paradoxes (like in a Chekhov play with its passionate fools). Yet I admired the actors' sincerity in various scenes and the set's design in presenting them, even when I felt like I'd had enough of the soap and wanted to change the channel to another opera.          Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. 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. He blogs at

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Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Weber
Directed by Michael Grandage
Choreographed by Rob Ashford
Blumenthal Performing Arts
March 4 - 9, 2014

A rock opera, narrated by a Marxist revolutionary, about an Argentinian feminist, married to a military dictator? What's this theatre community coming to? Well, it's a Broadway revival of the 1978 album musical by the creators of Jesus Christ Superstar (1970). In this tragic rock opera, the anti-hero is a woman who rises from poverty to become a radio personality and then First Lady and "saint" to the Argentine crowds. Yet she uses them for power and manipulation, giving an "escape" for the people who idolize her, with "illusions, not solutions." She improves their immediate poverty, handing out cash in one scene, but does not make changes in the long term-according to the show's narrator, Che.

Eva Perón was married to Argentine Colonel Juan Perón from 1945 until her death from ovarian cancer in 1952, at the age of 33. Juan Perón became President of Argentina in 1946, serving two terms until 1955 and again in 1973-74, when he was ousted by a coup. Che (a common Argentine interjection meaning "dude") is not Che Guevara, the famous Argentine Marxist who was instrumental in the Cuban Revolution (1953-59) and was executed by Bolivians in 1967 while trying to lead a violent revolution there. But he may be the Brechtian ghost of Che in 1978, as a narrator critical of Evita's passionate rise to fame.

Evita's various passions, as a poor girl from a small town climbing the social ladder in the big city, are brought beautifully to the stage with Weber's music, especially in her famous balcony song: "Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina". But the title and lyrics of that song also show the Brechtian ironies that Rice puts into the show. Evita gains power from the crowd's attachment to their Madonna. (In fact, the pop star Madonna played this role in the 1996 film version.) She wants them to cry for her, with both joy and sorrow, even as she sings to them not to-while strong and weak. She appeals to the theatre audience in these ways, too, increasing the paradoxes.

The current touring production stresses the power of Weber's music and Evita's star appeal more than Che's critical jabs. Josh Young as Che melds his voice beautifully with Caroline Bowman's, as Evita, and with the other excellent performers. Bowman puts her own caustic twists on the character, as she gets gifts from and gives her body to various men, on her climb to Mt. Perón, as she revels in the pleasures of the summit, and as she starts to fall during her "Rainbow Tour" of Europe. Bowman also evokes great sympathy as the dying Evita, again putting a passionate polish on Che's edgy insights. Sean MacLaughlin is equally impressive as Juan, the loving and admiring husband, yet competitor with Evita for the people's hearts.

The heavy rock beats, tinged with tango and burlesque, sometimes make Rice's lyrics hard to hear. But the dancing, with many leg and torso entanglements, expresses much beyond words: both sexily engaging and politically ironic, like the tension between the three main characters. Other performers play multiple roles with great dexterity, in this series of songs and dances with no spoken dialog, demanding quick changes of costume, character, and mood.

The set by Christopher Oram (who also designed costumes) is simple yet powerful: moving from a small town tavern to the big city mansion, with its many interior scenes, private and public, plus a high exterior balcony for crowd spectacles. Historical photos and videos are displayed, with projection design by Zachary Borovay, to bring us into the time period and its sharp contradictions. Indeed, this is often a strident show, with its muscular marching mobs and a witty yet mocking narrator, demanding various perspectives from the audience to piece the whole together or to embrace its fragments.

So why this revival now? Is it time for a female Christ-figure in our country? (It's intriguing how much of this rock opera, in its sounds, story, and ideas, is akin to Rice and Weber's earlier Superstar hit with Jesus, Judas, Mary, and the High Priests.) Might a mass media personality become a politician here, like Maggie Thatcher's friend, Ronald Reagan, who rose to the top at the time this musical was created? If only Hillary could sing…. Or Sarah Palin? But then we'd need a Che, too, with Guevara's face being an icon already, on many consumer items. Like a ghost across the centuries and the Americas.                  Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. 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. He blogs at

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By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Jill Bloede
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
February 20 - March 15, 2014

Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage's most recent play is very funny, and it amuses while recalling the experiences of all the forgotten or uncredited African American actresses in Hollywood past and present. We first meet Vera Stark and Gloria Mitchell as they run Gloria's lines for a potential role in an antebellum epic entitled "The Belle of New Orleans." Several things are quickly evident. Gloria is a capricious and spoiled beauty whose cultured innocence is a thin facade. Vera is smart and ambitious. She knows she has inherent talent, but her skin color limits her chances for that elusive big break. Vera works for Gloria, but their interactions indicate a long established intimacy that runs much deeper than social convention will accept.

The first act is set in 1933, and the second in both 1973 and 2003. In the first act, Gloria (played with layers of arch affectation by Caroline Bower) angles for and lands the title role of the film within the play. Vera also hopes for a role in the film, even if it means playing a slave. Brandi Feemster, as Vera, conveys a lovely balance of hope and self-awareness as she uses what connections she can to reach her goals. Miss Feemster has the stage presence to convincingly play Vera as an actress with substance, "a leading lady in a maid's uniform." And sure enough, The Belle of New Orleans becomes her breakout role.

The second act is another thing altogether. One side of the stage is set for an academic panel that reviews footage of Vera's 1973 appearance on The Brad Donovan Show. That appearance is played live on the opposite side of the stage, while scenes from The Belle and subsequent events in Vera's life are projected onto a centerstage screen. The counterpointed scenes of scholarly commentary and Vera's on-camera unravelling ask the audience to consider uncomfortable truths concerning the prejudice that relegate women (and men) of color to roles that perpetuate demeaning stereotypes.

Director Jill Bloede has amassed a very strong supporting cast, all of whom play dual roles. Gerard Hazelton's Leroy flirts with Vera outside the stage door. His slick charm has an undercurrent of sincerity, and when the character is reprised in a later interview, we see that same sincerity overlaid with bitterness. Mr. Hazelton's Herb, the panel's moderator, is droll and brilliantly stylized. Erika Ross is a standout as Vera's friend. As Lottie, she has some of the best lines in the play, and she delivers them with great verve. She is also splendid as panel member Carmen, whose reserved pronouncements ring like bells.

Iesha Hoffman's insouciantly played Anna Mae has the light complexion (and audacity) of a woman who can "pass" as a South American vixen, and her impassioned portrayal of Afua, angry and poetic, is something to see as she struts and frets her moments on the stage. Robert Simmons plays Slasvick, a big-time producer whose spitting mad delivery exemplifies the depression era hegemony of movie scions like Selznick and Mayer. A versatile actor, he's wonderfully smarmy as talk show host Brad Donovan. Johnny Huber plays director Max, a man whose artistic vanity knows no limits. Later, his portrayal of Peter is pitch perfect as the stoner rock star who is Vera's foil in her last television appearance.

Production values are high in this show. Jill Bloede's direction elicits all the laughs the script can deliver, while giving the underlying substance room for expression. Kudos to Heidi O'Hare for costume design, Hallie Gray for lighting, and Mike Snow and Catherine Colley for their excellent set. A special mention is due to Jay Thomas and Chuck Bludsworth for their audio visual work.          Review by Lydia Arnold

Lydia Arnold is pleased to be a contributor to ARTS à la Mode. Her heart has always been with the arts, particularly theatre and the artists that make it happen. Writing about theatre, any particular production, is always in service to the art form, and she hopes her "take" encourages more people to take a deeper look, and put an emphasis on the performing arts.

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By Athol Fugurd, John Kani, Winston Ntshona
Directed by Corlis Hayes, Michael R. Simmons
Carolina Actors Studio (CAST)
February 21 - March 15, 2014

During the height of apartheid, between the 1950s and 1980s, the country of South Africa was in great turmoil, just as other parts of Africa are today. Except the turmoil existed between races. Citizens were segregated into classes; they were considered black, white, coloured or Indian. Mirroring American culture at the time, black Africans, just like black Americans during the Jim Crow era, were inferior to every other class of people. During this awful period, millions of blacks and other non-whites were forced to move out of their homes in one of the largest mass movements on record. They were also forced to carry identity books, much like a passport or personal identification card, that ultimately dictated much of the direction of their lives.

The production, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, tells the story of a black man passing through the African Township of New Brighton looking, unsuccessfully, for work. The production opens on a small platform with a little wooden table and two chairs center stage. At stage right, another table houses a bowl with water and a modern camera. The back wall is plastered with black and white photos of people who had visited over the years.

Styles the photographer, played by Devin Clark, who owns the studio, reads a newspaper article and reminisces about his time working in a Ford Motor plant. He jokes about meeting Henry Ford and the upper management, antics that were invisible within the facility. After several minutes, Styles' thoughts are interrupted by a man who wanders into his studio looking to have his photo taken. Sizwe Bansi, played by Ron McClelland, is nervous and tongue-tied while he attempts to explain who he is and why he needs the photo.

During the next hour, with no intermission, flashbacks occur, two associates get drunk in a bar, and one urinates on a dead body in the alley then lifts the dead man's identity book. And if that doesn't peak any interest, maybe the intense delivery of Ron McClelland's emotional oration will, along with him stripping down to his unmentionables, just as South African society has stripped Sizwe Bansi of his manhood.

Sizwe Bansi Is Dead was originally produced in 1972 in Cape Town, South Africa but the effects of the premise, apartheid, literally meaning "apart-hood", unfortunately still reverberate today.

Although the two-man cast delivered the message probably as written, the play may have been more powerful without much of the fluffed intro and more of the actual storyline. Some of the information was watered down, such as the idea of jobs, and who could obtain one and who could not. I would have preferred to see different characters and props that reflected the specific era. In the end, the production is worth seeing, but could be wonderful with a few small tweaks.                   Review by Dawn Thornton

Dawn Thornton is a freelance writer in the Charlotte area. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Stage and Screen from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Uptown Magazine. Dawn enjoys reviewing theater productions, movies, and loves most things artistic.

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Book by Mike Artell
Adapted for the stage with book, music, lyrics by Joan Cushing
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
McColl Family Theatre
February 21 - March 9, 2014

This story is a charming retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale — Cajun style. What is fun about the play is the "spice" that's added by changing locations and going from little girl and wolf to duckling and alligator. Petite Rouge (Cassandra Howley Wood, an exuberant, spunky heroine) is the youngster who wants to go out into the big bad world but is held back by Mrs. Duck (Lucianne Hamilton, skillfully playing multiple characters). She finally agrees to let Petite Rouge visit her sick Grandmère with gumbo, extra hot sauce, cornbread and sausage in her basket. But she will only be allowed to go if TeJean the cat (Isaac Gay, excellent) accompanies her. She is warned over and over to travel straight to Grandmère's, but we all know how well children listen to their parents.

On a small boat navigating the bayou, they meet various characters, the most threatening of which is the smarmy Claude the gourmet gator (Mark Sutton, a consummate villain), who is craving a meal of duckling. The also meet gator hunters, ride on a riverboat, attend Mardi Gras, and finally make it to Grandmère's house.

Director/choreographer Ron Chisholm brings his signature creative touches and humor to the show. Especially fun is the coordinated percussion using metal cans, though the recent snow storm cut into rehearsal time. The ensemble of Lucianne Hamilton, Jany Bacallao, and Kyla Piscatelli give it a good effort that will improve over time. The lively music organized by musical director Drina Keen fits the spirit of the production.

The set design by Andrew Gibbon and Tim Parati, who is also the scenic artist, is inspired, and along with the costumes by Magda Guichard, and the lighting by Eric Winkenwerder, are additional stars of the show. Where else would you see tall, moss-covered trees moving in a swamp, and an alligator costume with red glowing eyes, and gigantic tail? They do exactly what a children's production should do — spark the imagination of the audience watching. That includes the big kids among us.

An extra treat was provided by playwright Joan Cushing, who adapted the book. She attended opening night, giving children and parents a chance to meet and thank her in person for this delightful play.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is co-founder and film/theatre review editor of ARTS à la Mode. Vive les arts.

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4.48 PSYCHOSIS (Adult Content)
By Sarah Kane
Directed by Robin Witt
Assistant Director Kara Foster
UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture
Department of Theatre
Robinson Hall, Black Box
February 19 -27, 2014

Innovative, "experiential" theatre is not rampant in Charlotte. So it is always interesting when productions appear that take risks with the form. (Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST) is the only theatre in town that consistently invites an audience to participate from the minute they walk through the door.) It turns out the college setting at UNC Charlotte is an ideal match for Sarah Kane's disturbing 4.48 Psychosis, the playwright's last work about clinical depression before her suicide at 28.

The play has been described by one critic, rather dismissively, as a “75-minute suicide note.” I would describe it more as a wail of pain to an indifferent universe. Others will undoubtedly see the play in their own way. That is a strength of the writing, because although it is highly personal material, it can be interpreted however the audience chooses. The play itself is written in an unconventional format with 24 sections rather than straight dialogue.

What director Robin Witt has done is to divide the play into three sections. Before entering the Black Box at Robinson Hall each audience member receives a wrist band in one of three colors. Are we now the Subject? A guide takes each group to one of three stations where the scenes take place simultaneously, then rotate when the scene is completed onto the next section. The effect is discordant, jarring, unnerving as you try to listen to what is being said, but other insistent voices interrupt your concentration. Is this what it’s like?

My first station was the Waiting Room with the nameless Subject (Ashleigh Adams, a young actor to watch), interacting with her Doctor (Brittany Petticrew). The sessions provide no relief from the unrelenting progression of her illness. It does provide fragments of dialogue allowing a perception into her suffering, “f*** my father for f****** up my life for good and f*** my mother for not leaving him, but most of all, f*** you God for making me love a person who does not exist.”

The next scene Dancing on Glass, is more abstract with the Subject (Caroline Block, providing the most physically demanding role) conveying time spent in a hospital, being given medications that don't help, acting out when nothing works, trying to cooperate, but unable to achieve relief. A masked chorus, (Maurli Davenport, Savannah Jillani, Beth Killion, Connor Pate, a five-member ensemble who directed themselves) scolds, threatens, distracts her.

The final scene, Cage of Tears has the Subject (Aubrey Young, good job) and her Alter Ego (Elizabeth "Piper" Parks, also well done), locked together in a physical space where the Subject has no escape, going back and forth but making no progress. Where can you go when there is no place to hide?

All the scenes are intense, drawing in the audience. It is well worth staying for the talkback afterwards. The people who did stay were astute in what they took from the play. For those fortunate enough not to have known clinical depression, the play allows the audience to experience the long nightmare. Another benefit of the production is to aid in understanding the disease, allowing one to recognize the symptoms and suggest mental health treatment sooner for self or others. It's not just "the blues" we all experience at times. Sarah Kane was unable to integrate her different "selves" or make the meaningful connections needed to save her own life, but she left behind words that create a deep empathy for her plight.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is co-founder and film/theatre review editor of ARTS à la Mode. Vive les arts.

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By Katori Hall
Directed by Lou Bellamy
Blumenthal Performing Arts
Booth Playhouse
February 4 - March 2, 2014

It's difficult to create a miracle play today, presenting the martyrdom of a modern saint. How accurate should it be to history, how revealing of the human behind the holy? But Katori Hall's 2009 play about Martin Luther King, in his last night alive, is full of surprises. It starts realistically with the audience as the fourth wall of King's Lorraine Motel room in Memphis, April 3, 1968. Then it eventually shifts to the surreal, with comical twists. Though also somewhat preachy, it ends with a spectacular, mystical vision across a half century of King's legacy, from his lifetime to ours.

The set design, by Vicki Smith, is the star of this play's magical twists, from historical motel room to various cosmic dimensions. It starts with a fully furnished room: two beds with matching beige curtains, a chair and side table, desk drawers, a small stool, and the sink area of the bathroom. The motel's street sign can also be seen outside the windows, as can the balcony, where Dr. King paces before the play begins, like a ghost of himself even before his death. King (James T. Alfred) takes a legal pad from his briefcase on the bed and talks to the audience, as a mirror to his uncertain identity, while planning a speech. He shows his paranoia, perhaps warranted, checking for audio bugs in his room. But the audience of the future is watching him—and another Other from above.

When the motel maid, Camae (Erika LaVonn), arrives with a coffee for King, his attraction to her with overt flirting, after talking with his wife and daughter on the phone, shows his vulnerability to temptation and family betrayal. She smokes cigarettes and drinks whiskey with the preacher, teasing him about their class differences, admiring his fame, and apologizing about her vulgar slips in speech. But she also dons his suit coat, stands on the bed, and mimics his preaching in funny and challenging ways. When she calls him, "Michael," he suspects she's a spy. Yet he and the audience are in for a much bigger surprise about her identity and where she came from.

Both actors do fine jobs performing with and against the expectations for a famous, historical character and his newfound, end of life friend. Alfred's makeup line distracts from the play's initial realism and his preaching becomes somewhat tedious toward the end of the 100-minute, no intermission show. And yet, the playfulness of LaVonn brings out various sides to Alfred's fictional MLK, making him sympathetic and admirable in new ways—not simply a holy martyr for the Civil Rights Movement, but a complex, tragicomic hero in the eyes of God and future souls.          Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. 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. He blogs at

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Book by Chris D'Arienzo
Blumenthal Performing Arts
Belk Theater
February 21 - 23, 2014

Opening on Broadway in 2009, after lengthy development in Los Angeles, Rock of Ages: The Musical has developed an enthusiastic following. It's a lighthearted jukebox musical based on the glam rockers of the 1980s such as Poison, Journey, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar and many, many others. The narrative is paper thin and serves as a tenuous vehicle to get from one musical number to the other. This isn't really a problem, since our intrepid narrator Lonny Barnett (played with sleazy aplomb by Andrew Sklar) reminds the audience through direct address that nothing on stage is to be taken too seriously.

The basic story follows hopeful rocker wannabe Drew Boley (Dominique Scott) who has the desire but not the drive to follow his dreams until he meets equally hopeful actress Sherrie Christian (Shannon Mullen) who spurs him on to greater things. The story revolves around the impending closing of the famous Bourbon Room—a nightclub that features live music—by an evil developer.

As mentioned, the story doesn't really matter other than to set up some jokes and set up increasingly over-the-top production numbers such as glam rock standards "Anyway you want it" and "The Final Countdown," and many, many others. Any child of the eighties will be instantly familiar with it all.

The performers do evoke the necessary eighties rock look and sound. Dominique Scott is earnest and sweet as Drew, but wails convincingly in his rock solos. Shannon Mullen's Sherrie is sweet as pie but rocks the rocker chick persona. Joshua Hobbs as the perverted rock superstar Stacee Jaxx manages to convince the audience he is more than a set of muscles and manages to shine in a few numbers—and to have the most offensive joke in the show involving an underage girl. I won't list it here. Andrew Sklar's Lonny Barnett provides good narration and keeps the show moving. He has great chemistry with his partner in crime, Dennis (played with "dude-like" serenity by Brian Ashton Miller). Sklar and Miller get more than one opportunity to play against each other and they combine broad comedy with sincerity.

The secondary characters, though well-performed, seem tacked on and get in the way of the flow of the show. German developer Hertz (played with appropriate German gruffness by Phillip Peterson) wants to sanitize the Sunset Strip with the help of his flaming heterosexual son, Franz (yes, I meant heterosexual). Tanner Hussar's accent came and went throughout the production, but his fabulousness was a welcome contrast to the hard rocking mood. Ashley McManus also stands out as Waitress 1. She has an amazing presence and voice.

Technically the production is solid. Beowulf Boritt's unit set suggests both the exterior strip as well as the interior Bourbon Room. Based on his design from the Broadway production, it is as glam and gritty as its NYC counterpart. Jason Lyons' lighting is also recreated here, and manages to evoke the necessary scene changes as well as suggest the most lavish rock concerts imaginable complete with lasers, fog, strobes, and hundreds of lighting effects. Gregory Gale's costumes are spot on—evoking eighties rock with a Vegas-sized exuberance.

Rock of Ages is a solid jukebox musical that delivers on its promise of hardrocking entertainment and fun. There's no pretense of solid bookwriting or pathos. I could care less about the central characters, but I did have a good time from beginning to end. As a child of the eighties, who remembers when MTV first became a thing, I appreciated the wine cooler infused ride down memory lane. If you can keep you expectations of compelling narrative and character in check, you'll enjoy this raucous show that provides loving homage to the eighties and especially to the glam rock gods of that time.          Review by Tim Baxter-Ferguson

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

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By C.S. Lewis
Adapted for the stage by Max McLean and Brian Watkins
Directed by Bill Castelino
Fellowship for the Performing Arts
Knight Theater
February 15 - 16, 2014

If you're a fan of C.S. Lewis, especially of his metaphysical dream-story about the separation (or "divorce") between heaven and hell, then this very inventive and well-produced adaptation will probably be appealing. If you believe in a Christian worldview, you'll certainly find it intriguing. Or if you'd just like a vision of afterlife possibilities, with brief references to God, then this play provides strange lands, troubled characters, and yet hopeful views of human wisdom.

But it's a challenge to watch. The play begins as a dream, with three actors playing the narrator, who tells about his dream in the past tense—even though we see it as present. The narrator travels on a bus from "Grey Town" to the "outskirts of Heaven." The three actors alternate as the narrator and over a dozen other characters, including George McDonald, a favorite author of the narrator who becomes his guide, like Virgil to Dante.

Each "ghost" that they meet bears a story with intense emotions, embedded in the past, which we only get a glimpse of. So this play is like watching fragments of many dramas, with some humorous moments, and many insightful ideas. It does not have a complete dramatic arc of focused conflict, which we usually expect onstage. And yet, how many dreams do?

The scenic design, by Kelly James Tighe, is stunning—with exceptional use of video imagery behind the actors, with a book and clock frame around them, and with simple yet key elements onstage (such as the grass at heaven's edge that does not bend under the ghosts' feet). The actors' performances are outstanding, too, whether they (Tom Beckett, Christa ScottƽReed, and Joel Rainwater) play refractions of the narrator or other ghosts that he meets. Their voices are amplified in an odd way, making them even more ethereal, yet real onstage—in the flying bus and on the sharp lawn where they might find heaven.

There's no judgment scene, no angels and devils as servants or prison guards. But we see human souls who are "thickening" as they acquire wisdom and are sent (how or by whom?) to welcome and advise the newcomers, like our narrator and others on his bus. This play stresses human choices, giving various examples of characters who remain so attached to notions of self, rightness, propaganda, or past deeds that they cannot move onward in joy—and choose, it seems, to continue in a hell of their own making.

For example, an artist must give up her claim to fame on earth, in order to realize she's now in heaven and does not need to paint its beauty if she wants to be truly happy. Even a mother's love for her son shows too much attachment, which causes her suffering, although she tries to believe in a "god of love."

It's rare today to see onstage such an earnest metaphysical view, with significant humanist insights (resonating with Buddhism as much as Christianity). Lewis's story finds a compelling adaptation here, even if it's not a fully engaging play. It's presented instead as a modern man's allegory of the soul, with many postmodern devices, showing a world where we all might end up someday.          Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. 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. He blogs at

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By Y York
Directed by Sidney Horton
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
Wells Fargo Playhouse
January 24 - February 9, 2014

Tonia Bridge, played by Janalyn Moonie Walton, is an artistic, rambunctious yet impressionable 9 year old girl growing up in 1964 Black America. Her father Leon, played by Bobby Tyson, is a postal worker with a "fed-up" chip on his shoulder and doubt in his mind that his daughter should strive so hard. Tonia's schizophrenic mother, played by Darlene Parker, is obsessed with a white doll that she's named Katie King and what seems to be an etiquette book that her daughter must read every day to succeed in life. She is little help to Tonia.

It's Tonia's 9th birthday and instead of being an excited child, Tonia tries to convince her mother that she doesn't need a birthday party and has already decided not to invite anyone for fear that her mother will have a schizophrenic episode in the middle of the celebration. That same evening, Tonia's Aunt Franny, played by Veda Covington, visits and presents her with an island doll. She has short cropped hair, speaks French and wears a colorful billowing dress that the young girl longs for.

After the threat of a disastrous party has passed, Tonia sets her sights on the school science fair that her teacher has encouraged her to participate in. Her father, who has a defeatist outlook on life, attempts to deter Tonia by telling her that no one likes a smart girl and that her science project of rainbows has nothing to do with science and should not be entered into the competition.

Staying steadfast on the idea of entering the science fair, Tonia and her playmate Theo go on a hunt for the perfect items to add to her project in hopes of proving her father wrong and showing everyone else that she can soar beyond what is expected of girls.

While the Wells Fargo Playhouse is a small intimate venue, the set — a living room and dining room combination — is adequate. A set of stairs shown in the foreground leads to the home's second floor where mother Alma is always resting her mind or putting Katie King to bed. Although the main character and her playmate Theo are both 9 years old, their demeanor seemed a bit more innocent than most children that I know who are the same age. Their dispositions are more like that of 5 year olds — overly playful and naive. Then again, I didn't know any 9 year olds in 1964.

Since my newly 10 year old niece accompanied me to the production, I asked her what she thought after we congratulated members of the cast upon exiting the theater. "I liked it," she said. Unfortunately, she couldn't explain what she liked about it, which is ironically how I felt. The play imparted a great message to young girls: that they can be just as successful and even surpass boys in the male-dominated subject of science, or in any area they choose. However, there were a few confusing moments surrounding the science project and why certain items were utilized, as well as unanswered questions about her mother's illness.

I found the play vague in some areas, but I was excited to be among so many children that enjoyed the production, and were smiling after the cast took a bow.                    Review by Dawn Cauthen

Dawn Cauthen is a freelance writer in the Charlotte area currently working on a screenplay, a novel, and many freelance articles. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Stage and Screen from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Uptown Magazine. Dawn enjoys reviewing theater productions, movies, and loves most things artistic.

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By Neil LaBute
Directed by Justin Robert Attkisson
Appalachian Creative Theatre
UpStage at NoDa
January 24 - 26, 2014

As crass as it sounds, for some tragedy can present opportunity. Such is the premise of the Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat. The play opens in the early morning hours the day after 9/11 in New York City. Ben (Dan O'Sullivan), married and father of two, is at the apartment of his lover, and boss, Abby (Caroline Renfro). He was supposed to be at one the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center on business, but stopped to have a tryst with Abby. They learn together of the catastrophic event, causing them shock, grief, and a bitter, brutal, reassessment of their relationship.

Playwright LaBute doesn't play a delicate hand. His dialogue is more Mamet than Tennessee Williams as his characters spew insults at each other. Tender moments are few. Yet, what begins as two people intellectualizing random thoughts, then grinding through their history, ends with a sobering reality. 9/11 here is used as a backdrop, a device to show the true character of these people. It may be a cynical tactic, but a writer could imagine many scenarios coming about because of the disaster. Up to now there haven't been many produced. It could be not enough time has passed for most of us to fully take in the huge scope of what happened and the lives affected. It is still too raw. But the purpose of plays, in Mr. LaBute's hands, is not to make us comfortable, but to make us pay attention.

Director Justin Robert Attkisson does a fine job drawing out the essence of these two, often unlikable characters, through the actors. Dan O'Sullivan continues to bring new dimensions to his performances. He is able to show Ben's humanity even through his selfishness. Caroline Renfro strikes just the right note as a career woman, used to being in control, whose self-protective shell begins to crack. The actors have a solid rapport onstage that makes the play work.

The long narrow space at UpStage, divided into separate areas is used to good advantage with the set design of Justin Attkisson and Amy Fine. The areas allow enough movement for what is basically two people talking/arguing for 90 minutes. Also helpful is the lighting by Christopher Anderson and sound by FroShow Productions.

This debut production by Appalachian Creative Theatre is the first show of their season. We congratulate them on a successful introduction to their company. It is a job well done and deserves your notice and support.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is co-founder and film/theatre review editor of ARTS à la Mode. Vive les arts.

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By Marc Camoletti, translated by Beverly Cross and Francis Evans
Directed by Tony Wright
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre
January 16 to February 8, 2014

In a cold winter month, CAST is warming its audiences with a classic French farce from the 1960s. There are no deep meanings here, but a cautionary tale for men's polygamous fantasies, with a nostalgic look at the "Dating Game" era-when free love, while flying fearfully, eventually found a truer grounding.

Three lovely "air-hostesses," from America, Italy, and Germany, are all engaged to the same dashing Frenchman, Bernard (Emmanuel Barbe). They, of course, do not know about each other. He keeps them separate with an airline timetable. But then Robert, his friend from Wisconsin (Joe Rux), visits him in Paris and can barely keep his menage a secret. And yet, Bernard gets vital help from this friend, and from his sassy maid (Polly Adkins), to keep the ladies separate when airline schedules bring them home together.

The audience is brought into the spirit of the play with air-hostesses in the lobby, boarding passes as tickets, and a blue room with seven doors onstage, as Bernard's abode with his live-in maid and three spouses to be. The farce lifts higher with the entrance of each sexy fiancée, but especially when the German, Gretchen (Karina Roberts-Caporino), takes a liking to Robert, as does the American, Gloria (Mandy Kendall)—with some powerful kisses. The Italian fiancée, Gabriella (Katie Bearden, a former student of mine at UNC Charlotte), also gets the laughter aloft with her suspicious stares, tempestuous poses, and guilty wilting.

Stereotypes turn into caricatures here. But each woman displays a strong will: the American to remain independent, the German to get her best option (while restraining her passions until the right time), and the Italian to turn a confirmed bachelor into the marrying type. Barbe's Bernard becomes increasingly sympathetic and yet hilarious as he is brought to his knees through the foolish hubris of trying to control these three cagey gals. And Rux's Robert brings a precise mixture of Midwest shyness and American-abroad wildness to the Parisian door'slamming party. Adkins's fretting maid, as confused cook of a different dish depending on which fiancée is home, also mixes the madness well throughout.

Plot twists here can be guessed far in advance. But this farce can still be enjoyed with increasing surprises through the actors' skillful energies, the director's development of their body language, and designer Rebecca Randolph's color-coded airline costumes, flight bags, and negligees. So, check your expectations and travel light—to find fresh smiles, quick wit, and sexy leg-room on this CAST flight.          Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. 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. He blogs at

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By Sharr White
Directed by Michael R. Simmons
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre
January 9 - February 1, 2014

Who are you if your memories become confused? Current neuroscience shows that our memories are reconstructions—not direct replays of experiences. In White's play, a female neurologist experiences this problem first hand, with the deconstruction of her memory and identity. As with the film, Memento, the audience of this play might identify with the protagonist through a disruptive narrative that jumps to different points in time, constructs conflicting events, and projects multiple characters on the same actor (or actor's voice offstage).

At times, Dr. Juliana Smithton (Marla Brown, a friend of mine) relives a lecture she gave on the Virgin Island of St. Thomas, pitching a new drug for halting the spread of amyloid plaque in the brain's hippocampus, which causes memory loss. She obsesses about a young woman in a yellow bikini in the audience, who seems to trigger Juliana's own symptomatic rage, confusion, and memory problems. This thrusts the theatre audience into contentious meetings with her philandering husband (Jeff Johnston), a younger woman treating her (Frances Bendert), whom she accuses of having an affair with him, and others in her mental deterioration (with minor male characters played by Jeffrey Woodard).

The theatre lobby sets up the audience's journey with Juliana into the sharp angles of memory fragmentation with an airport waiting area and a ticket for an airline flight to St. Thomas. The hallway en route to the theatre shows further signs of the sinister journey: images for medicine, DNA helixes, and question marks. But the set inside the theatre is more abstract, with triangular black stands and a low white brick wall suggesting hospitalization, plus a floor with blue arcs containing red and pink dots and a central white rectangle (reflecting the video screens on the walls above the audience).

Much of the show becomes likewise intriguing, yet not a full development of the script. The actors perform at high levels of intensity, with subtle ironies and witty moments mostly overflown. Juliana's charm as a pitchwoman, sophistication as a scientist, and yet feral rage at family members and at her own mind's betrayal might provide more intricate twists in this show, along with its leaps in time and mix of different realities. Her husband Ian's attempts to help her, like her doctor's diagnosing of her, also involve ironic elements—as does her offstage daughter's use of Mahler to signal a final rebellion and an onstage stranger's use of food and role-playing to partly heal Juliana in her former home.

But the poignant buds of joy in this tragic mystery need more nurturing, with kind caretakers and wistful video memories eventually pointing beyond the thorns of jealousy, betrayal, and rage. Hopefully, audiences in the month of January will help the actors to grow this play toward springtime insights, by exploring with them the brain's complex acts of intersubjective balances.          Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. 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. He blogs at

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Book by John Cameron Mitchell
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Trask
Directed by Chip Decker
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
January 8 - 25, 2014

Nothing captures an audience so much as when a performer comes out and leaves everything onstage. Such is the case with Billy Ensley who plays Hedwig. ATC left it to the people to vote and Hedwig and the Angry Inch won handily. It's no mystery as Mr. Ensley repeats his outstanding performance of Hedwig, belting out songs, strutting around the stage provocatively with garish glittery blue eye shadow, using different voices and accents, costumes & wigs, and displaying shifting emotions, often on a dime.

The story of the abandoned son of an Army man left behind The Wall in East Berlin with his mother, "Hansel" dreams of a better life. Another military man mistakes him for a girl but falls in love anyway. Yet to marry, Hansel must become a she. A botched sex change operation leaves her neither/nor with only an "angry inch" left to deal with. He morphs into Hedwig and moves to America, but is deserted again. Through her humiliation and pain Hedwig finds a way to go on. That's why we care. She's fascinating. She's a survivor.

The five-piece band, named the Angry Inch and led by Music Director Ryan Stamey on keyboards, featuring Matt Carlson and Jeremy DeCarlos on guitar (both delivering high-voltage guitar licks), Anthony Proctor on bass, and Greg Lisi on drums. The able ensemble kept the joint rocking and the audience engaged as they provided the suitable atmosphere of a punk rock club. Mr. Ensley belted out song after song between the story lines, ranging from the raucous "The Angry Inch" to the sublime "Hedwig's Lament", and capping it with the crowd pleasing "Midnight Radio".

The technical team gives the setting more juice this time around starting with sound by Chip Decker and sound mixer Kelly Traux. Also notable is the lighting by TC Kouyeas, costumes by Annie Laurie Wheat, props by Carrie Cranford, and makeup by Clay Smith. Slides and video were projected on several screens during the performance, including a creative accompaniment to "The Origin of Love".

Before the show, ATC, now in its 25th Anniversary season, was given an award by the North Carolina Theatre Conference for their outstanding contributions to live theatre. We congratulate them. Hedwig and the Angry Inch lives up to that standard in every way possible.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is co-founder and film/theatre review editor of ARTS à la Mode. Vive les arts.

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