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Friday, November 1, 2013

Theater reviews: A Guide to the Newly Dead, Hansel & Gretel, and The Amish Project

Posted By on Fri, Nov 1, 2013 at 4:30 PM

No fewer than three companies were offering quickie plays last weekend, all clocking in at 55-67 minutes and richly deserving praise - though some also merited a modicum of caution. The most eagerly awaited was the return of Machine Theatre to Duke Energy Theater with Matt Cosper's newest foray into the comically surreal, A Guide to the Newly Dead. Rarely have I seen the slick and the shambling so perfectly wed.

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I'll need to defer judgment on Cosper's marriage of outlandish absurdism and genuine intimate confessions. That's because Newly Dead is Episode 2 of a three-part narrative, Bohemian Grove, which began unfolding this past spring at UpStage in a co-production with PaperHouse Theatre. In the hurly-burly of Passover, I missed Who Shot Carmella? so I can't tell you how well - or if - Newly Dead connects with the previous episode. We get Episode 3: Tuba next March and, in May, The Box Set, "a long form performance created from all three episodes."

That's a fairly broad hint from Cosper that all three parts of Bohemian Grove are likely to evolve further before they're Machine-packaged. Cosper credits himself with conceiving and directing the show, it should be noted, while "The Machinists" are designated as the creators and performers. Group improvisation plays a role in Machine's developing script, yet there's one little oasis where the actors sit down for an underworld group therapy session, and all four characters shed their theatre masks, each taking on the performer's true name as he or she offers up a personal reflection.

Until then, we're in a weird Mayberry-Meets-the-Wolfman world, as Sheriff Beef Dickson and Deputy Donna tumble out of a Halloween forest into the dark underworld. One possible connection between Newly Dead and other episodes is the mass disappearance of 20 boys from town, a topic that dominates conversation between the sheriff and the deputy. To say that the daily office routine is humdrum would be to hugely shortchange the anti-theatricality of the opening scene - comedic tedium that is broken up by the triviality of phone calls from a woman who is too cheap to invest in the morning newspaper.

Ashby Blakely and Caroline Bower work beautifully together as the clueless hicks, scorning the thick accents that a Beef-and-Donna combo might suggest. Kelly Nicholson adopts a flat, sepulchral voice as the nuisance caller, rather than a trashy twang, sitting at a folding table that separates the two halves of the audience, timesharing this low-energy role with light narrative chores. Later when we've moved on to the underworld, the meaning of her lab coat is understood as she becomes the head nurse, still seated at the table.

Beef and Donna are far more radically changed, their afterlives defying the prescriptions of all known religions - though Cosper & Crew are clearly playing around with a couple of them while messing with theatre tradition. Some truly cheesy costuming is required from Robbie Jaeger to make all this possible. Karina Roberts-Caporino and Alexander Lieberman arrive toward the end as two more nurses, helping the newcomers to orient themselves. Beef and Donna may have gone mad, but they are not here in an earthly asylum.

Shrouded in mystery, which may - or may not - be dispelled by its surrounding bookends when they come to light next spring, Newly Dead can be recommended as entertaining Halloween fare for anyone who enjoys experimental theatre and absurdist silliness. Performances are all as perfectly calibrated as the tacky tech.

You can't fault the performers for the senseless muddle Mike Kenny has made of Hansel & Gretel, now at Wells Fargo Playhouse in ImaginOn - but nobody forced Children's Theatre of Charlotte to program this cheapjack "meta"-morphosis. Because we're introduced to a typically dysfunctional contemporary family at the beginning, who eventually divvy up the storytelling, set and costume designers need only make a quarter-hearted effort to simulate the magical scenes evoked by the Grimm Brothers' 200-year-old tale, let alone the wonders lavished upon the Engelbert Humperdinck opera adapted from it.

Caught up in their electronics, the children in our modern family can't be bothered to eat or converse at dinnertime, so Mother decides that a group retelling of "Hansel and Gretel" will help bring the family together. How this story is outfitted to solve the family's chronic ailments never becomes clear, even after the story is re-engineered to include a huge cowardly mouse - presumably to keep Dad involved after Mom has assumed the role of the evil Witch.

For children who are no longer being bottle-fed, this Grimm disembowelment certainly triple underlines the notion that there's nothing to be afraid of, though it's hard to imagine what they'll make of the extra layer placed between them and the classic story. Nor is it ever clear what significant thresholds have been crossed when one family member hands off narrating chores to another. The cast, directed by Joe Hernandez in an inauspicious debut, works hard to keep a firm hold on the kids' attention when the irrelevant family intrudes, but the needless battle is often uphill.

Longtime Tarradiddle teammates Stephen Seay and Leslie Ann Giles have the title siblings well-pegged, with enough regression to give even the kiddies a kick. Scott Miller is every bit as adorable is his creator intended, a suitable rebuke to Kenny the playwright, and it is absolutely safe to see Tanya McClellan's tepid performance as the Mom and the Witch. Just don't blame her for the lack of Halloween terror that this production generates. Would we still venerate the late Alan Poindexter's performance as the Wicked Witch of the West if the only tech support he'd received were a plastic nose with a rubber band? The only plus here is on the balance sheet.

But here's the key question: why would the company Poindexter built, one of the leading children's theatres in America - one that is housed in a library, no less - get in into its head that Hansel & Gretel is in need of rehab? Next thing you know, the Big Bad Wolf will be eating Grandma's porridge instead of Grandma.

Up in Cornelius, Annette Saunders is starring in The Amish Project at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center. The one-woman show, presented by DC-2 Productions, takes us back to the hostage-taking and killing of five girls in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 2006 - fictionalized by playwright Jessica Dickey, who starred in the original off-Broadway production in 2009.

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Directed by Divina Cook, with costuming by Lory Butters and set design by the two DCs, the director and her husband Don Cook, the production looks very much like the simple Rattlesnake Theatre version that ran in New York. Where we reach a truly exalted level of technical precision is in the lighting design of John Hartness, so beautifully calibrated to the shifting tone of the piece and so detailed in delineating the various monologues.

But it's obvious that Cook was not content to have Hartness merely fit his design to the shifting scenes. There is a level of synchronization between the Hartness light cues and Saunders' action that generates excitement all by itself, especially when the killer enters the Amish schoolhouse - abruptly in lurid semi-blackouts, again and again throughout the show in nightmare repeats. Grover V. Smith has composed and pre-recorded music that further deepens the experience.

Much of Saunders' work is the best I've seen, as she shuttles convincingly between seven characters, often in the blink of an eye. She is both the killer, Eddie, and his thunderstruck wife Carol. A lot of the action revolves around the impact of the murders on Carol, who encounters hostility from the non-Amish Sherry at the supermarket and consolation from the 16-year-old Hispanic checkout girl America. There's also Bill, a distinguished and slightly stuffy professor of American religion, who helps hone our attention in on the preternatural ability of the Amish to grant forgiveness for even the most horrific crimes.

Yet most of Saunders' artistic advances went for naught when we came to the two victims of the tragedy she portrays, young Velda and the somewhat older Anna. Here she lapsed into her old vices: Velda's speech was so distorted by veering toward babytalk that it was often unintelligible, and Anna was so subdued that she was mostly inaudible - even from my front row center seat! If I can hear the Machinistas from the other side of Duke Energy, if I can hear every word of Arsenic and Old Lace from the second row at Theatre Charlotte, and if I can hear every student in UNC Charlotte's current Love the Doctor at Robinson Hall's Black Box, then I should be able to hear every word Saunders is speaking at a wee storefront theater.

I'm hoping Saunders and Cook take heed. If they do, your trip up I-77 for the final weekend of The Amish Project will be far more worth it than mine.

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