PaperHouse Theatre and Citizens of the Universe aren't performing simultaneously at Wine Up in NoDa right now, but the upstairs dive just past 36th Street has nurtured both companies in recent months.
The less fringy of the two, PaperHouse began life back in November with Penny Penniworth, a deliciously swift takedown of Dickens and the Brontes. After that Wine Up debut, it's already mainstreaming at Spirit Square. COTU, on the other hand, has been hanging around NoDa since spring 2011, bouncing around from The Mill to the Chop Shop before ascending to Wine Up last summer with Marx in Soho.
When company founder James Cartee isn't going rad with such iconoclasts as Marx and Hunter Thompson, he's usually exhuming screen gems such as Trainspotting, The Princess Bride, Fight Club, or Sid and Nancy and adapting them for the stage. That's approximately what the COTU guerillas are doing now with the world premiere of Cartee's adaptation of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Co-directed by Cartee and James Lee Walker II, the production retains an element of cinema with a screen that often projects freshly shot footage behind the actors onstage. There are tables facing that screen and, if you arrive early, you have the option of ordering from Wine Up's menu or from nearby Beaudreaux's. Yet the overall experience is as much like watching a NASCAR race from the infield as it is like dinner theater.
Especially in Act 2, when the pace accelerates, action is staged around the audience, and the swivel chairs you're seated on become quite handy. The commuter train where Joel and Clementine meet at the outset and both of their apartments are to the audience's right. Front and center, the space in front of the screen is where the couple makes their dearest memories. To our left are the offices of Lacuna Corp., where Clementine has gone — fearing commitment or heartbreak, or maybe out of sheer kookiness — to erase all memory of Joel from her brain through the ministrations of Dr. Holly Mierzwiak.
Nearly as young and foolish, Joel goes to Lacuna for a matching erasure. But after the process begins, Joel experiences buyer's remorse, so he schemes to hide his memories of Clem in places where the Lacuna technicians and their machinery won't find them. The vertigo of migrating memories and the vertigo of lurching forwards and backwards in time — and in and out of Joel's mind as the story climaxes — mesh well with the swirl of action circling around us as Joel strives to save his love.
Though I haven't seen the 2004 film, I'm guessing that Cartee and Walker decided to go way against the grain in casting Colby Davis as Joel and Megan York as Clementine. What they give us is worlds apart from anything I've seen from Jim Carrey or Kate Winslet, but it's a brilliant blend. Joel's shyness and nerdiness are stiffened to the verge of paralysis, yet Davis makes his steely core, the source of his tenacity, strong enough to reach to the rear of the audience, wherever that happens to be. York gushes with spontaneity, impulse and enthusiasm — as if she's supposed to be the "eternal sunshine" of this story — clearly her best stage work so far.
Supporting players aren't quite on the same high level, but Walker and Cartee deliberately deflate our expectations from the outset. With the movie screen flashing brightly behind them, the actors chaotically scurry back-and-forth across the stage, pausing long enough to show us their characters' names scribbled on typing paper. That's as close as we'll get to opening credits. Hollywood this ain't.
WITH A CAST that any local company would drool over, PaperHouse ratchets expectations considerably higher for Arthur Schnitzler's classic La Ronde at Duke Energy Theater. Spreading the current epidemic of co-directing, this production divvies up the 10 dialogues among four directors, Greta Zandstra, Peter Smeal, Andrea King and Nicia Carla. The three women also act in scenes they're not directing, while Smeal handles set design and emcees.
La Ronde doesn't take us very far from the Victorian England presented in PaperHouse's Penniworth, but in transporting us to pleasure-loving Vienna, Schnitzler is showing us sensuality, anxiety, ennui and openness that are vastly more in tune with modernity. Each time a belt buckle is unloosed or a petticoat hits the floor, the time traveling begins.
If you haven't seen the 1897 original before — or David Hare's notorious modernization, The Blue Room — it's the structure of La Ronde rather than the story that requires explanation. Whenever one of these liaisons ends, one of the sex partners exits while the other lingers for the next scene, making a second connection with the opposite sex. The chain continues to grow until the last character we see, a noble count, couples with the first to exit, a lowly whore named Leocardia, completing the grand circle of lust and promiscuity.
By Charlotte standards, there is ample concupiscence, with the women disrobing more often — and thoroughly — than the men. All four directors seem to agree that we'll be keeping things lighthearted. From Carla's encounter as the Whore with Chaz Pofahl as the Soldier, we proceed merrily until Chad Calvert makes his entrance for the fifth and final scene before intermission as the starchy Husband of a repressed Young Wife (Gretchen McGinty, back from a fling with a neurotic Young Gentleman, done to perfection with Berry Newkirk). Calvert seems to think he's Torvald in A Doll's House. It's that pompous and tedious.
Act 2 brightens considerably when Calvert meets Michelle Busiek as the sweet Little Miss. But after the new layers of Matt Cosper as the Poet and Zandstra as the Actress, we hit the shoals again with Alan Poindexter's enervated comeback as the Count, so reserved in his elegance that he won't even condescend to be audible. He looks the part, I'll say that.