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A Gloomy Bush-iversary 

Charlotte Rep continues to sink fast

Insiders are telling me various juicy things about events and information-flow at Charlotte Repertory Theatre. For one, we can expect a major piece in the Arts section of next Sunday's Observer catching us up on the afterlife of Rep's former artistic director, Michael Bush.But while we're likely to learn that Bush is fine, thank you, up at the Manhattan Theatre Club, salaried as MTC's director of artistic production, it's doubtful whether even the lordly Observer will be able to unearth any new info about Bush's successor at the Rep -- or the company's financial plight. Rep has been taking evasive action on these subjects since Observer theater writer Julie York Coppens interviewed Bush and another MTC official last summer.

Calls that I've placed over the past few months to Rep's managing director, Debbie Fitts, and to Bill Parmelee, the new chairman of the Rep's board of trustees, have yielded no names or numbers. Nobody seems to be on the radar to succeed Bush, and the best estimates available have the Rep's red ink hemorrhaging to the tune of $500-600K. That's about a quarter of a million dollars worth of bleeding since Bush resigned from the Rep November 10, 2003.

A gloomy anniversary indeed. Obviously, there's a connection between Rep's forthrightness on its finances and its lack of progress in naming Bush's successor. Worthy candidates are not going sign on with a company that's so fiercely reticent about its ledger. Artists of stature don't climb aboard sinking ships. Nor do they invite catcalls chorusing, "We warned you!"

What's truly weird and troubling at this point is Rep's staunch refusal to send out a loud SOS as their ballooning deficit threatens to capsize them. Yes, we did find envelopes tucked discreetly into our programs when I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change! opened at Booth Playhouse earlier this month. As distress signals go, this one was too subtle. There were no stirring personal appeals from Rep's management or board, not one sentence or utterance that indicated urgency.

Nor are the donor or theater communities rallying to the cause. Interim artistic director Terry Loughlin confided at the opening of Perfect that he doesn't keep his hand in company production very much these days. As we reported online earlier this week, Rep founder Steve Umberger has cast himself adrift from the February production of The Exonerated that he was slated to direct. You can discard any hopes of reconciliation between Rep and Umberger in the near future. As he tells the company in his resignation -- the first in years at the Rep not to arrive wrapped in air-quotes -- Umberger has attracted better opportunities from theaters elsewhere in the region.

Unless there's a reversal in Rep's strategy, the city's only Equity company may quietly bleed to death, faceless and abandoned. It's a fate that Rep's clueless, arrogant board has richly deserved ever since their egos estranged them from both the artists who built the company and the audience that nurtured it.

The company has changed since Bush's departure a year ago. J. Michael McGuire, past board chairman and chief architect of the Rep's catastrophic miscalculations and miscarried ambitions, is gone. New development and public relations staffers are in place.

But it's obvious that the timidity of Rep's current leadership team is no less self-destructive than the boldness of the previous regime. Somebody up at the Rep's offices on 28th Street needs to buy a vowel, get a clue, or find a mirror. Because the company is rapidly losing all vestiges of its identity in its own eyes -- and in the public's.

If the next Rep board meeting were to focus on why the company came into existence, how the company was built, and what the fundamentals are that captured the community's loyalty and imagination, the broken vessel might still be steered clear of financial ruin. Sometimes, you need to publicly admit that you've betrayed your audience and your mission.

There's no way to repair the rift between Rep and Michael Bush. But rejecting the life-raft offered by Steve Umberger is reckless foolhardiness. I know for a fact (who doesn't?) that the Ubiquitous One was prepared to do more for his company than merely guest-direct. Rep's board should get down on its knees and grovel at Umberger's feet, begging him to return on whatever terms he chooses.

In spite of Umberger's resignation from The Exonerated, Rep's founder is far too invested in the local scene to lock the doors on a feasible rebuilding plan. The same regional companies and resources that have just drawn Umberger away from Charlotte could become allies in re-establishing Rep's artistic vision and vitality.

Perhaps the Rep ledger is too hopeless for such a scenario at this point. If so, maybe a swift collapse -- rather than a long, drawn-out death spiral -- would be the best thing that could happen.

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