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RED LIGHT WINTER


DREAM A LITTLE DREAM



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RED LIGHT WINTER
Directed by Caroline Renfro
Appalachian Creative Theatre
UpStage
July 23 & 25-27, 2014

Misplaced passions provide plenty of plot points in romantic comedies, from Plautus to Shakespeare to Chekhov to recent works. Adam Rapp's play (a Pulitzer finalist in 2006) has many funny moments, but it also explores the darkest dimensions of lonely young people throwing their hearts in the wrong direction or defensively refusing to catch the other's love. Suicide, prostitution, drug use, and AIDS enter the picture. Yet there's a wonderful poetic playfulness that infuses the characters' desperate delusions with hope, along with bitter ironic humor.

In this production by a new theatre company in a small performance space in NoDa, Chris Herring plays the eloquent yet anxious Matt, a hard-working, squirmy, agoraphobic, creative writer or self-described "nerd." Brian Seagroves plays his charmingly expressive and slyly manipulative buddy, Davis, a book editor who brings the apparent gift of a French prostitute to their tiny hotel room in Amsterdam, where the glow of the "Red Light District" appears in the window. Both actors perform these roles with fine-tuned details, exploring the mystery of their relationship: college friends from Brown who tease each other, wrestle on the floor, compete for significance, and share a strange intercourse of subconscious passions through words, memories, and a woman's body.

Jenny Lee Wright (who appeared in a play of mine some time ago) performs the object of the boys' complex desires with amazing dexterity: her face and body morphing through many shades of pretense and revelation. Wright tempts the audience, too, with a voyeuristic fascination through and yet beyond her lovely, tragic physique, presenting her character's mind as the heart of the play's romantic mysteries. Although she adores Davis, traveling from Europe to the U.S. to find him, and forgets about Matt, whose life she may have saved, she then develops a deep compassion for him. Or is she just using them both, like they're using her, and lying in various ways, even to herself?

Despite the intimacy of the UpStage space, director Caroline Renfro stages explicit sex scenes. These appear clumsy at times in order not to reveal too much flesh. Yet they also show the courage of the actors in exploring their characters' physicality with the audience. Production designer Robert Lee Simmons puts the first act's red-lit hotel room to the left of the audience, forcing some spectators to spend an hour twisted in that direction, and the second act's New York apartment to the right. But the couches and soft chairs of this tiny theatre (where dinner and drinks can also be ordered) implicitly join the spectators with the characters onstage, in their cozy, contorted, living spaces. The audience even enters the theatre through the same door that the characters then use.

So, kudos to ACT for staging this challenging play in their initial season and at a very modest price for the audience. After the demise of another, long-standing, "experiential" company this year, the emergence of ACT with such risky, risqué, yet highly intelligent shows offers a hopeful sign to Charlotteans who enjoy exploring complex characters and tragicomic plots, in live and intimate performances.        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 mpizzato.wordpress.com .....here

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DREAM A LITTLE DREAM
By Denny Doherty and Paul Ledoux
Directed and Choreographed by Tod A. Kubo
Musical Director Mike Wilkins
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
July 17 - August 9, 2014

How ironic that the generation that came of age in the 1960s, that wanted to break all boundaries and be free, have become a cliché. That's what's happened fifty years down the road, but it doesn't make this musical any less entertaining, and it is well worth a trip to Actor's Theatre. The short, messy history of the The Mama's and the Papa's singing group as written here by its member Denny Doherty, and Paul Ledoux, is a microcosm of the time, but also drenched in regret. How many people say when older, "That's the person I should have loved, should have been with, but for some reason, couldn't."

I commend Mr. Doherty's need to create the mood of those years, even touching on social and political changes in the early 1960s, and the forces that helped transform folk to folk-rock, but it unnecessarily forces the play to be too long and episodic. Not every scene needed be included or given equal weight. What makes the play engaging is the combination of the four people who make up the singing group.

John Phillips (Grant Watkins), ambitious and obsessed with making it in the music business pushes his beautiful hippie, free-love wife Michelle (Caroline Bower) to join him onstage, though in the beginning she is clearly not a performer. Ms. Bower does a credible job showing the evolution of Michelle as both a singer, starting out with arms hanging at her side, and later as more than just a pretty body and empty head.

Along the way they meet up again with singer Denny Doherty (Jon Parker Douglas). Many of the singers of that era knew the others and partied together, assessing each other's skills while "playing for baskets" (passing the hat, if you will). He joins the couple's act and tries many times, unsuccessfully, to bring in Cass Elliot (Brianna Smith). While she clearly has a superior voice, John resists, with Denny castigating him for his reason for denying her inclusion—her obesity. Here's another paradoxical twist: she's the one who gets them an audition with music producer Lou Adler (Matt Cosper), and makes their career.

Through the struggles of being so penniless they have to sell their instruments, to drug-induced states of self-pity and inertia, to becoming famous and living like rock royalty, it is their powerlessness to control their attractions and repulsions to each other that eventually dooms the group. Cass loves Denny from the start, he falls in love with Michelle who is furious at John, who wants to control the others.

Since the play was written by Denny it is no surprise that he comes off as a tortured man, desperately in love with someone who will never be with him, but equally in pain and guilt-ridden over his inability to return Cass' love. Jon Parker Douglas, who convincingly and sympathetically embodies Denny, and Brianna Smith, have considerable rapport onstage, that of best friends who give love and support. As sometimes happens, one develops intense romantic feelings. It is all the more poignant for Cass since her weight, and having to stand on stage next to a beautiful woman, must be torture of another kind. She was intelligent enough to know how people, especially men, judged her. Apparently, later on, she tried to lose large amounts of weight quickly, which may have contributed to her early death. In fact, this play is really a tribute to Cass. Brianna Smith's outstanding performance brings out all the best of her character, culminating in a lovely rendition of Cass' signature song, "Dream a Little Dream of Me".

The play incorporates many of the group's hits, and the highlights include an excellent version by the singers of "California Dreamin' " and Jon Parker Douglas' compelling "Monday, Monday". Also included are songs by other groups and artists, with special note of Joseph Klosek's excellent rendition of "San Francisco", not an easy song to sing without sounding too affected.

Director Tod A. Kubo meets the challenges of the play and manages to give the correct emphasis to the individuals. Though, John Phillips comes off a bit of a ghost, through no fault of the director or actor. He isn't the focus of the play, but his character here, for unknown reasons, lacks whatever depth is given the other three singers. Nice ensemble work is contributed by Matt Cosper, Joseph Klosek, Chaz Pofahl, and Nicia Carla in multiple roles. The band, Brian Quick, Jeremy DeCarlos, Don Jaeger, and musical director Mike Wilkins are also to be commended.

Dream a Little Dream evokes the life and times of an early 1960s singing group who earned some notoriety, made some captivating music, but in the end couldn't control the chemistry that made them stars.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva

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

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