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Bushels of bard 

Summer theater in the city

It wasn't too long ago when summer theater in Charlotte was a vast wasteland. Nothing from local companies dotted the barren nightscape other than the mainstream slate of musicals and farce from CP Summer Theatre and little sproutings from Farm Theatre, the Queen City equivalent of off-off-off Broadway. A whole generation had forgotten that Charlotte Rep had grown to maturity in the good ole summertime, cohabiting the season with Charlotte Shakespeare.

Recently, the climate has shifted. You don't have to bail out to Flat Rock, Blowing Rock, Barter Theatre, or some Unto These Horns of the Colony outdoor historical extravaganza to find palatable theater anymore.

It's not just the Blumenthal blockbusters like The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King at Belk Theater filling the void. Actor's Theatre has successfully tilled the summer soil. The PAC engineered a City Stage Fringe Festival at Spirit Square for two years before BareBones Theatre Group decided to mosey over to Queens Road last summer and start its What the F#&%$TIVAL at Theatre Charlotte.

Just to make things extra interesting, Collaborative brought us their first dose of Shakespeare at the Green, CL's Theater Event of the Year -- a fresh jolt of hyper-energy for the Center City.

Ooops. A Midsummer Night's Dream -- with fine direction from Elise Wilkinson and athletic hijinks from Beth Pierce -- actually opened on the second weekend in May 2006. So my wife Sue and I froze our butts off on the greensward enjoying that stellar production in the pale moonlight.

They're fixing that. Shakespeare at the Green 2, an update of the Bard's As You Like It, has bided its time past Memorial Day, summer enough for Charlotte. This newest Collaborative effort brings the Forest of Arden to Dixie, with Pierce figuring prominently again opposite Tarradiddle couple Greta Marie Zandstra and Chaz Pofahl, playing June 1-17. Still free and presumably fabulous.

For the first time since Charl Shakes folded after its 1991 season, there are multiple Bard offerings this summer. Hitching his wagon onto Shakespeare Carolina, former Off-Tryon Theatre Company managing director John Hartness is hauling two bushel baskets of Bard across the border.

While designing lights for The Crucible at Theatre Charlotte, Hartness was literally moonlighting as Petruchio down in Rock Hill. That's where Chris O'Neill founded Shakespeare Carolina in the late 90s before burning out in 2000. At a performance of Othello in York, S.C., he had his epiphany. Nobody was helping anymore!

He decided to take a six-month sabbatical. Casting his eyes northward, he beheld Off-Tryon. Before he knew it, six years had elapsed. O'Neill had worked repeatedly with Hartness without returning to revive his own company. His best work with OTTC was as Judas in Corpus Christi. His worst was undoubtedly Hamletmachine, tabbed by CL as the #1 bomb of 2005. With a bullet.

"After doing Hamletmachine," O'Neill recalls, "I realized that, as much as I love experimental, out-there kind of stuff, it still comes back to the classics for me. I was getting away from doing the classics, and I wanted to get back. John and I have been friends for a really long time, so this was going to happen."

Hartness was still taming shrew outdoors in downtown Rock Hill when the lightbulb turned on. He had heard that BareBones was not doing a F#&%$TIVAL encore, so he pounced on the opportunity and suggested that Theatre Charlotte open its barndoors to Shrew for Shakespeare Carolina's North Carolina debut.

Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law pounced back, saying he wanted somebody who would fill his summer season. Result: the first annual Queen City Shakespeare Festival -- including a Hamlet without that damn machine.

So Taming of the Shrew will kick off the Bardfest on June 21, the first day of summer, followed by the brooding Danish prince on July 19.

Think that's all? To invoke the old Jolson canard, You ain't seen nuttin' yet!

The Epic Arts Rep premiere of Stan Peal's Goddess and the Magdalene, sporting the company's biggest budget ever, opens on July 12 at Actor's Theatre. Peal's missus, Laura Depta, stars as Mary -- not the blessed Virgin, either.

"It's based on the premise that [Magdalene] was married to Jesus, and it's really about what happens to her after his death," Depta reveals. "She feels very lost, really. She doesn't know who she is, because she has devoted her life to this great teacher, and to the love of her life. And when he's gone, not only does she not know what personally to do or who she is, but she finds that the direction that the new Christian movement is taking under the helm of Peter is potentially threatening for her."

Anticipating the great Joni Mitchell and the Woodstock Generation, Mary -- and three goddesses -- will go off on a heroic quest to reclaim the Garden of Eden. Provided that Charlotte's famed militia of fundamentalist wackos doesn't obstruct the path.

Other biggies from Charlotte's fringe companies include Topdog/Underdog (May 31) and American Buffalo (June 28) at CAST. BareBones brings us another intriguing script as Orson's Shadow, the Welles-Olivier smackdown, opens at Duke Power Theatre (July 5). Queen City Theatre Company, which has already shaken the ground beneath our feet with their Miss Coco Peru fundraiser at Actor's Theatre, invades Spirit Square to unveil the return on our investment: Sordid Lives, directed by QC artistic director Glenn Griffin. Mark down August 9 on your calendar for trashy Texans on parade -- behaving badly at their trashy mom's funeral.

What else could there be? Try the New Pineville Dinner Theatre, returned to life by two prime ham actors, Craig Spradley and Jeff Pillars. They're doing auditions this Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Coach's Sports Bar, 10403 Park Road Suite J in glorious downtown Pineville. Up for grabs are six paying roles in Having a Wonderful Time Wish You Were "Her," slated for a mammoth five-week run beginning on July 10.

And let's not forget Charlotte's godfather of fringe, George Brown, celebrating the 20th anniversary of innovative Theatre with a revival of Women Behind Bars at Duke Power Theatre in Spirit Square, June 15-30. The man who brought us Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, and the definitive cross-dressing Alan Poindexter edition of Psycho Beach Party vows that he hasn't mellowed since first crashing Charlotte's conservative theater scene.

"The last Women Behind Bars," Brown warns, "we had a lot of young professionals in the audience that seemed to be kind of shocked. But I kept filling all of the seats, and they were laughing the whole time. So I don't think they'd seen anything quite like it. It's so politically incorrect! I mean, the things that people say on that stage, and the things that they do to each other are just outrageous. The play is pretty out-there for anywhere, especially Charlotte."

Rest assured, WBB continues in the hallowed innovative Theatre cross-dressing tradition.

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