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Angels In Laramie 

Matthew Shepard tragedy explored in disturbing drama

Last Saturday, exactly four years after Matthew Shepard breathed his last, Actor's Theatre of Charlotte presented the most moving -- and disturbing -- of tributes to the slain U of Wyoming student, Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project.

In a town where feathers were so absurdly ruffled over Angels in America, you couldn't find a more relevant stage piece -- or one more compellingly innovative. Nor is it easy to imagine a talented cast more intently devoted to communicating the story of the hate crime that shocked the world. Parts 1 and 2 of Tony Kushner's Angels won two Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Laramie may have deserved two Pulitzers -- one for drama and one for investigative reporting.

Under Lon Bumgarner's richly restrained direction, all the interwoven storylines remain sharp and clear. Laramie is more than the retelling of the horrible details of the murder and their impact on the town. Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie no fewer than six times after the news broke, armed with microcassette recorders and their dramatic sensibilities.

They conducted over 200 interviews with townspeople over the course of a year and a half. At least five members of the writing team -- plus Kaufman himself -- kept journals chronicling the experience. The resulting script, scrupulously woven from the research and reaction pooled by the Project team, demonstrates that the writers were interested in discovering the underlying causes of the savage beating.

So Laramie is also the chronicle of the Project's quest for the truth -- and the impact of what they find upon Kaufman and his theater friends. As we listen to the actual words of the six questioning writers and over 60 people they spoke to, the normal barriers between theatrical art and baffling reality are torn asunder.

They speak directly to us, from the heart, sometimes more candidly than they know. We hear Aaron Kriefels (Chandler McIntyre) recounting how he found the dying Shepard, beaten and tied to a wooden fence. There's Detective Rob McBree (Phil Taylor) who has learned the painful lesson that -- even in jest -- gay bashing is a lethal disease that shouldn't be condoned. We encounter a wide range of clergy, both icily tolerant and rabidly homophobic (Laura Depta, Steven Ivey and Brian Lafontaine). And briefly, we encounter the perpetrators, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson (Mark Scarboro).

What we don't find are any horrifying earmarks that would stamp Laramie as a hotbed of homophobia -- or differentiate the citizens of their town from our own. Truly unsettling when we glimpse Laramie for the last time and find ourselves back in Charlotte.

But maybe a production like this can change things, strengthen our resolve. You owe it to yourself to see these eight fine actors, to join them and Bumgarner in the post-play powwow. We all do.

Coming to town for a blockbuster two-week engagement, Mamma Mia! has a heavier burden than merely reacquainting the Queen City with ABBA's frothy soft-rock hits from the 70s. Opening night was our first glimpse of Phase One of the $5 million renovation of Ovens Auditorium.

New bars of Art Deco lights run up the sidewalls of the auditorium, morphing through a rainbow of Necco wafer colors. Seats have been livened with fresh patterned upholstery in autumnal earth tones. Ceiling lights are notably brighter, tossing aside their former gloom. Nearly 150 seats have been eliminated, yielding a more intimate feel to the hall.

Though the layout of speakers and wiring is far more discreet than before, it was hard to tell whether acoustics have been improved as claimed. With nine electric guitars, four electric keyboards and two percussion kits in the pit, there was little clue how most categories of orchestral instruments would sound.

As music director Martyn Axe launched into the overture, the onslaught of electrified, amplified sound was certainly fierce. Fortunately, there was more mercy from the sound booth afterwards.

Catherine Johnson's frivolous script, cobbling together 22 of the Swedish quartet's hits, is as workmanlike and clever as the patchworks sewn together for the Tin Pan Alley tunes of Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin. The plot revolves around Sophie Sheridan on the eve of her wedding to dreamboat Sky on a tiny Greek island at a cozy taverna run by Sophie and her mom Donna.

The careworn Donna was more freewheeling with her morals in her youth -- and lead singer in a vocal trio that included thrice-married socialite Tanya and chubby, hot-to-trot Rosie. Prying into her mom's diary, Soph discovers there are three likely candidates who might be her father. Unknown to everyone, she invites all three to her wedding, trusting to instinct to unlock the mystery of her parentage.

At nearly the same moment that Sophie's possible dads arrive, so do Donna's singing chums. The rockin' mid-life babes hop into silvery jumpsuits and upstage everybody in sight, particularly the leggy Ellen Harvey as Tanya. Additional shots of comedy are provided by Robin Baxter as Rosie and Pearce Bunting as the strapping Aussie she shamelessly pursues.

With so much time spent singing the ABBA songbook, director Phyllida Lloyd deserves a lot of credit for keeping comedy and breezy romance at the forefront. Production design by Mark Thompson effectively mixes Mediterranean laziness and disco glitter, nicely complemented by Howard Harrison's sunny lighting.

Compared with the seething chemistry of Travolta/Newton-John, Chris Bolan and Kristie Marsden are more like the kids next door as Sky and Sophie. While they're upstaged by their more glittery elders, they're not outperformed in this agreeable romp. Long before the ensemble finally slipped in "Waterloo" as song #23 in the third encore, my boogie foot was already tapping at full throttle. It's a pleasant ride, slicky produced. Ear candy perfectly formulated for aging flower children.

Somebody needs to hand out assignments more often to Moving Poets Theatre of Dance -- especially if they lead founder/choreographer Till Schmidt-Rimpler & Company out of their comfort zones. Their latest creation, premiered after intermission in their Gateway South presentation last week, was a refreshing change from the usual Poets brew of sensuous decadence and Euro cynicism.

Southern Tour, inspired by the words and works of North Carolina painter Maud Gatewood, brings the company closer to home than they've ever been before -- adding a ray of sunshine previously scorned by the Poets. Paired with the new work was the tribute to Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, The Echo, a comparatively monochromatic piece that led to the overture from the Empowerment Project to create the Gatewood tribute.

Flamboyantly bi-polar, Southern Tour takes its visual cues from Gatewood's breezier work bursting with pastoral joie de vivre and her more socially conscious urban pieces targeting demagoguery. A carefree young girl skates circles around the stage one minute, brandishing a red leaf. Next thing you know, a hate-driven KKK wizard covered in a crimson sheet marches menacingly towards us.

Spicing it all were Gatewood's observations on life and art engagingly delivered by Gina Stewart -- with perhaps more crackerbarrel rusticity than truly necessary. David Crowe's live music, MyLoan Dinh's costumes and Eric Winkenwerder's lurid lighting all meshed beautifully with fine video effects while Schmidt-Rimpler seemed to discover a fresh new language in his choreography. Even his brooding episodes pulsed with new life.

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