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80 Minutes On A Tightrope 

Helm committed to one-man show

Unless I'm covering my beat, I generally avoid one-person shows. They tend to lack tension, action and plot. They're oftentimes about artists or public figures I'd rather learn about more authoritatively through books -- if at all. As a group, they're monotonous, static, predictable.

But even a stultifying one-person show is an awesome challenge for the actor in the spotlight. He or she faces us alone. No cues. No net. On those rare occasions when show and performer transcend the form's inherent limitations, it's special. The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, starring Gina Stewart at Spirit Square back in 1994, gave us a glimpse of the magic.

To see that magic recaptured twice in the same year -- on the Charlotte stage -- borders on the incredible. First we had Rebecca Koon in Shirley Valentine, deftly cruising through a humdrum British housewife's comical self-reclamation. Now we have the new Charlotte Rep production of Becky Mode's Fully Committed at Spirit Square -- and an amazing opening night performance by Scott Helm.

In Shirley Valentine, we had the pleasure of following the uphill climb of a triumphant protagonist. In Intelligent Life, there's the immersion of one performer in a dizzying array of roles. In Fully Committed, we get the best of both worlds.

Sam is a struggling actor toiling in a struggling actor's dream job -- reservationist at a trendy Upper East Side eatery that's booked (or "fully committed") months in advance. But as we get acquainted with Sam, we quickly realize that the dream has turned into nightmare. Sam mans his potent switchboard in the dingy bowels of the posh establishment -- where he's heavily dumped on from above.

The fastidious maitre d' deflects repeated calls from an ardent admirer because "she's so ugly, Sam!" The kitchen neglects to send down a meal to Sam's dungeon for his work break. And Chef Claude -- sounding more like a Mafia don than a culinary artist -- tyrannizes Sam, assigning humiliating tasks and expecting knee-jerk obedience.

Meanwhile, there are personal, career and on-the-job crises popping in from all quarters. Sam wants to fly home to his kindly dad for the holidays, but he's scheduled for the switchboard. He's desperately awaiting a callback from a Lincoln Center audition while his "best friend" actor gloats over getting a role in a commercial.

A blizzard of reservations blows in from as far away as the Middle East and Hollywood. The maitre d's admirer proves she can be even uglier. Sam forgets to book the copter that's supposed to fly Chef to the airport. And Bob, the co-worker who's supposed to help Sam out of this quagmire of stress, isn't really stranded on the Expressway as he claims.

Helm plays Sam with remarkable perseverance and aplomb -- and he admirably individualizes all Sam's friends, relatives and multitudinous tormentors. While our hero deals with the phones and the intercom, Helm makes all the men and women at the other end of the lines materialize, some 37 roles in all during his 80-minute stint. The virtuosity of Helm's work, switching from one character to another, never impedes the flow of the story.

Helm has an imposing range of nastiness dialed into his various roles -- balanced by a giddy grab-bag of silliness, daffiness, coolness, dim-wittedness and outright befuddlement. Directing his first Rep production, David Mowers deftly deploys his star so that Helm's gallery of portraits and caricatures impacts tellingly. Jim Gloster's set design, the most intricate I've seen for a one-person show, sets the tone perfectly, aided at key moments by the punctuation of Hallie Gray's precise lighting design.

When Sam calls his agent's office for the umpteenth time, asking why he's so consistently unsuccessful, the receptionist -- a fellow switchboard warrior -- tells him that he needs to start projecting some sort of sense of entitlement.

That is so very true. Yet until the Hispanic receptionist reminds him that putting her advice into action has turned his fortunes around, Sam recoils from the word entitlement as if it were dirty.

But we see the difference an air of self-esteem can make -- and we get the message. Helm brilliantly delivers all of the fun that comes along with it. u

Barebones smiles again

Six years after the costliest, most controversial homegrown theater production in Charlotte's history, Rep's landmark presentation of Angels in America, you might expect the city to be ready for a fresh encounter with the work of award-winning playwright Tony Kushner. But from BareBones Theatre Group, home of the resolutely low-budget production?

It's about to happen this week in The Illusion, BareBones' swan song at the Afro-Am Cultural Center. Obviously, there must be something different about either this Kushner script or the BBTG budget. Actually, it's both the script and the budget that bust the mold. Kushner's play adapts a lyric comedy written by a young Pierre Corneille in the 1630s before he became the dread "Father of French Tragedy." In his adaptation, Kushner attempts to strip away Corneille's fearsome verbosity to bring us a tale that blends fantasy, romance, witchcraft and illumination.

An odious father, Pridamant, enlists the aid of a wily wizard to divine what has happened to his son since he fled years earlier. Alcandre's answers, viewed through the wiz's conjurations, are mutable and contradictory. In the undercurrent flowing through the comedy, love and illusion dissolve into one another.

The BareBones production, improbably, adds a layer of commedia dell'arte to the mix with director Chad Calvert supplying the elaborate masks and Peter Smeal, he of the rhino elan, serving up servility onstage -- while fashioning props on the side. So the budget is higher than usual for BareBones, and the tone is sunnier.

"We're doing things that you wouldn't typically associate with us," says company founder James Yost. "One of the things that we decided was, damn, we need to lighten up! I mean, we've been pretty fricking depressing. Drift and Closer and Pitchfork Disney -- it's like we might as well hand out some cyanide at the box office!"

While Yost admits that Kushner's notoriety figured in the company's choice of The Illusion, he insists that the essence of the piece counted for more than the controversy it might arouse.

"Kushner hasn't been produced since Angels in America in this city, to my knowledge," Yost declares. "But we're not in any way saying, "Oh, look, it's Kushner! Come on, see our stuff! It's nakedness and homosexuality!' We're not playing that up at all. This play in no way is in that category. I don't think this city is over [what happened in 1996]. And it's sad because we need to be."

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