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A distinguished dystopia 

Also, iT sputters back to life

Futuristic sci-fi satire has never been a particularly fertile field for playwrights. As Charlotte Rep's world premiere production of Beth Henley's Signature reaffirmed, designing and acting on dystopian terrain -- where style and tone are always elusive -- can be as fiendishly difficult as writing the play. So you need to keep that dubious heritage in mind when I proclaim that the regional premiere of Natural Selection is a significant overachievement. Though less than perfect, the current Actor's Theatre production eclipses Rep's effort as decisively as Eric Coble's script outshines Henley's.

Coble takes aim at more compelling issues and delivers effectively on dramatic conflict. We're in a future Florida even more surreal than today's, where Wonder World's Culture Fiesta displays rare live specimens of indigenous ethnic groups. Preservation of these vanishing cultures and bloodlines isn't going much better than preservation of the planet, which verges on the brink of a storm-tossed, global warming doomsday.

Dweeby ethnologist Henry Carson is in charge of stocking the Native American pavilion, supervised by Yolanda, an efficiency-obsessed bureaucrat with a heart of granite. Who visits these Culture Fiesta exhibits? Good question. If Henry's wife and family are typical examples, the masses are glued to their computer monitors, blogging and instant messaging, hardly ever venturing into the trashed environment. Henry and Suzie's son does band rehearsals through video conferencing, and the proud parents watch him perform via the virtuality of a webcast.

Attendance is dwindling, so Yolanda dispatches a cowering Henry into the treacherous Southwest with latter-day white hunter Ernie Hardaway. Here's where Coble's satire finds its soul.

Henry, a descendant of Indian fighter Kit Carson, discovers the adventure-loving frontiersman lurking in his blood during a rollicking helicopter safari that ends with his bagging a victim for the theme park. While the mellow Zhao Martinez isn't a full-blooded Navajo, he proves to be an authentic revolutionary when he arrives in Orlando. But is his fresh infusion of quirky spirituality enough to save humanity?

Well, it's more than enough to save this satire from slow, cerebral strangulation. As Zhao, Jeremy DeCarlos never lets the half-breed's shiftlessness -- or his Coyote cunning -- extinguish the pure flame of his virtue. A perfectly calibrated performance.

Coble also manages to contrive some high-energy slapstick as he unfolds his fable, and director Mark Sutch allows his able comedians, Tanya McClellan and Brett Gentile, to execute their excesses at maximum voltage. McClellan peeps in with cameos as a copter pilot and a rival theme park procurer, but she's mainly the over-caffeinated Yolanda. Gentile is another bizarro procurer but reserves his bodacious bellowing for the predatory Ernie.

Before the benign Zhao appears, Sutch and his cast haven't provided us with anyone we can empathize with. I'll give Joseph Klosek's overplayed panic as Henry most of the blame for the overly empty mirth at the outset, but Caroline Renfro as Suzie could be counted as an accomplice. Once the Carsons begin changing for the better, however, both Klosek and Renfro lock in on their evolution -- with some fairly hot chemistry in the hilarious "sloppy joe" scene closing Act 1.

No doubt about it, there was rust on the engine as innovative Theatre roared back to life last week at Duke Power Theatre with a revival of Women Behind Bars. Some of the sputtering was evident at the outset in the sluggish cue pickup. Even when the sparks began detonating at full cruising speed, they didn't flash with the highest octane of wanton outrageousness that was iT's trademark during the company's first wicked flowering back in the late 1980s.

But director George Brown and his company aren't merely playing to a new generation of theatergoers who have never seen anything in Charlotte to match this brand of cross-dressing irreverence. Brown is also corrupting -- I meant training -- a new generation of actors and actresses to deliver the goods.

Along with a couple of troupers from iT's previous excursion to Tom Eyen's bawdy Greenwich Village lockup. Ginger Richardson may not be as crisp and buxom as she was a decade ago as the depraved, egomaniacal Matron, but her glower still has steel, and Cress Barnes -- after a stage layoff stretching back to the original hit production at the Duke -- has only added to her beefy, butchy menace as Gloria.

Some of the new meat is also prime. Scott Brisbon brings a dumb blonde vacuity to Ada, the lobotomized pyromaniac, and Chip Brazil -- with eyelashes extending into the second row -- is all over Blanche's self-deluded Vieux Carré decadence, an absolute triumph.

Most disappointing is the Harlem delegation. In over-the-top roles, Muriel Samuels as the pugnacious Jo-Jo and Misha Claudio as Latina spitfire Guadalupe are barely over-the-bottom. Nearly as anemic are Bizy Cobb as the Matron's lackey, Louise, and Fraleane Holt as the innocent Mary-Eleanor. Gang rape, a must-see childbirth and assorted indignities do open M-E's eyes during her prison term.

Bryon J. Miller was appropriately vile in a potpourri of male cameos, and Courtney Wright strutted the stage with confident sluttiness as Cheri. Except for sound effects, which needed more punch, design elements bore the grungy iT polish of yore with a nice movie-title AV sequence from Cindy Stonesifer leading in. Opening night smoothed out after its lurching start, and Women Behind Bars should be an even more delicious bacchanal in its final two weeks.

Thirty-five years in Dixie were long enough for me to go without seeing a production of Tobacco Road. So I headed up to Greensboro last Saturday night, where the Triad Stage production of Erskine Caldwell's steamy naturalist classic (as adapted by Jack Kirkland) is the centerpiece of the second annual THTR 232 festival.

I was rewarded with one of the most amazing evenings of theater I have ever experienced. It merely began with the crudeness, ignorance and bestiality of the Lester clan -- by turns, hilarious or appalling -- in this vivid Triad version directed by Preston Lane. But I'd be remiss if I didn't single out Gordon Joseph Weiss's titanic performance as rapscallion patriarch Jeeter Lester.

The wonder only registered afterwards when Sue and I climbed upstairs for our theatrical dessert: the Charles Busch double-bill of Sleeping Beauty or Coma and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, presented by the UNC Greensboro Theatre Department. No fewer than five of UNCG's nine-member ensemble had just finished performing in Tobacco Road, making themselves over for their next show in just 15 minutes.

Here's the thing. They had meshed so seamlessly with the five Actors Equity performers in Tobacco Road that we never suspected they were students!

As for Beauty/Lezzies ... hot, hot, hot! -- and loud, loud, loud! -- smack in the comfort zone of the youthful late night crowd. The 232 marathons continue Fridays and Saturdays though June 30. Tickets may still be available.

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