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Balls And Chain 

Getting wild with theater

There are two basic strains of wildness: natural, savage wildness and twisted, demented wildness. Plenty of both kinds are on the loose up in NoDa in strikingly different productions by BareBones Theatre Group and the brash new innerVoices Theatre Company. So there is consolation for the end of Charlotte Shout in our city's Bohemia. But none of it is tame.

In its genial way, Rich Orloff's Someone's Knocking is the more wicked and subversive of these two odd pieces. If you remember Orloff's Veronica's Position at the Rep New Play Festival, named CL's Best Comedy in 1995, you won't be surprised at the blizzard of hilarious one-liners hurled our way.

As wild as Orloff's humor is in Someone's Knocking, his pointedly absurd imagination is even wilder. Our heroine Gladys has confined herself to her screwball home for her entire life.

On the verge of deciding to consider the notion that life is worth living, Gladys is even more vigorously opposed by her conceited husband Jack. Sniffing out the possibility that his wife might be admitting an idea into her existence, Jack commands, "Return it!" He'd much rather slurp coffee and have an obliging Gladys perpetually refilling his cup.

Meanwhile, Opportunity is knocking -- not just once but as persistently as a door-to-door salesman. Actually, he's a pint-sized superhero who does cartwheels.

When Gladys decides not only to have an idea but to pursue it into the dread "out there," Jack goes ball-istic, launching the most hilarious cri de coeur I've ever seen from an emasculated American male.

In a superb take on Gladys, Julie Janorschke demonstrates that there's a naive, pubescent Judy Garland lurking inside her large matronly frame. If the saccharine characterization of Gladys smacks of Hollywood, director James Yost has decreed that the rest shall be afflicted with the pep of Madison Avenue -- or the carnival artificiality of daytime game shows.

The shrewd, brainwashed Jack is a slightly robotic tyrant when Aaron Moore sustains his concentration, most memorable when he direly warns his mate, "I love you very much!!" and in the sidesplitting you-want-my-balls fracas. Nathaniel Gaw is an eagerly panting co-conspirator as TV with a dogginess straight out of a Peanuts cartoon.

Nicia Carla is deliciously self-centered as Gladys' sister Phyllis and cordially insincere as an interrogating Personnel Director. Christopher Leonard has an impressively inarticulate monologue as Phyllis's husband Bill before resurfacing as a glib, unctuous game show host. Travis Creston rounds out the cast as the crass, obnoxious Opportunity. Even the way he pronounces his name is irritating.

Gladys' odyssey in the so-called real world during Act 2 isn't quite as devastating as her struggle to break free in Act 1, but the stamp of Orloff's wit and originality remains sharply etched. The ending provides one last kick, turning the tragedy of King Lear inside out with its comedy.

BareBones hasn't abandoned their commitment to "theater that makes you think" with their current offering, but I'll admit I probably haven't laughed this hard or often this year. Subtitled "An odd little comedy," Someone's Knocking delivers big fun.

During the finite era of their betrothal, Carver Johns and his fiancee Serena Ruden have launched innerVoices in a nifty warehouse setting on 25th Street -- heading a fabulous cast that transcends the company's fledgling status. They've begun with A Lie of the Mind, one of the best stories Sam Shepard has ever told, filled with indelible characters who personify the American prairie.Jake is sure that he has destroyed himself by beating his wife Beth to death in a jealous rage. The traumatized Beth, face covered with bruises, regains consciousness in a hospital, still yearning for her abusive husband.

But there's never a doubt where all their passionate shallowness comes from. Meeting the couple's siblings and parents, you realize that Jake and Beth spring naturally from the vast American heartland of ignorance, vulgarity and xenophobia. Sometimes the realization is funny, and sometimes it's appalling.

Johns has always had the power and inclination for Shepard. Now directing and starring as Jake, he has added artistry and nuance. Those eyes still gleam maniacally -- with more impact because they're not permanently switched on. Although too much of the action faces stage right, Johns uses the space resourcefully in his stage direction and doesn't shortchange us on the story's gore and brutality.

As Beth, Ruden is more intense and compelling than I've ever seen her, something of a predator herself in her captive debilitated condition. Her prey is Jake's brother Frankie (Michael Nester), who has tracked her down partly to prove that Jake isn't a murderer and partly out of repressed lust. Beth's fiercest protector is her brother Mike, prone to rages nearly as lethal Jake's -- which may account for the attraction.

Nester, remembered best for his role as Elvis in Rep's Picasso at the Lapin Agile, is wonderfully suited to Beth's wounded love toy. The mountainous Alan Nelson is effectively bearish in Mike's cherishing and sadistic modes.

While the story builds to a satisfying climax where Jake finally tracks down his wife and brother, two hours and 51 minutes is entirely too long for even this fine storyline.

Slowest on the draw -- when he recalls his lines -- is Ted Johnson as Baylor, Beth's uncaring, sour-tempered Dad. Having a husband around the house sure makes a difference in Shepard's jaundiced view. Baylor's spouse is pathologically meek -- beautifully sketched by Bonnie Johnson. Jake's mom is sharp-tongued and embittered, perhaps even more small-minded and negative than Baylor in Polly Adkins' fine portrayal.

Amy Campbell rounds out the cast nicely as Jake's resentful sister Lorraine. She helps Jake escape mom's clutches mostly to have the bitch for herself. Welcome to the Great Western Family, Shepard style. It's another auspicious theater debut for a new Charlotte company; innerVoices has plenty of outward talent and lofty ambition.

Poets for empowerment

Last spring, Moving Poets Theatre of Dance teamed up with the Echo Foundation in a tribute to Nigerian poet/playwright/activist Wole Soyinka. That work, choreographed by Till Schmidt-Rimpler using text by the Nobel Prize winner, was so well received that it will be reprised this week in Gateway South, launching Moving Poets' 2002-03 season. The Soyinka tribute, titled The Echo, also sparked a new piece that will share the program at Booth Playhouse.Call it an echo of The Echo, one that resonates much closer to home.

After seeing the Soyinka tribute, Dana Davis, who subsequently became the Poets' board chairperson, approached the group on behalf of the Empowerment Project. The Chapel Hill-based company is currently producing a documentary on Maud Gatewood, regarded as the dean of North Carolina painters with close ties to Charlotte. Embarking on a new Gatewood tribute, Southern Tour, represents a new direction for Schmidt-Rimpler and the Poets. Until now, their multimedia work has been resolutely continental, expressionistic and only obliquely topical.

"We were allowed to watch a pre-screening of the documentary that the Empowerment Project is doing," Schmidt-Rimpler recalls, "and we looked at a lot of her work. She was very inspiring to us, both as a personality and as an artist. We had conversations with her, and she's very down-to-earth and a great painter. So that's good material to create work from."

Working together with associate director Katherine Harrison and a group of writers veiled by the pseudonym of "Eldwick Bingley," Schmidt-Rimpler also employed interview transcripts in fashioning the storyline for Southern Tour -- plus the group's bold take on Gatewood's work. Noticing that the painter often drops a dash of red in her works -- and a profusion of leaves -- the creators are taking us on a dreamlike quest for a red leaf.

"The red leaf becomes a symbol for freedom, for purpose, for happiness, for basically becoming the best one can be," Schmidt-Rimpler explains.

All is not sweetness and light, however, on this unique Southern tour. There's a darker strain in Gatewood's work, a contempt for demagoguery in general -- and for Klansmen and televangelists in particular. So yes, the breezy lyricism of the skater in Late Afternoon-May will be on exuberant display. But we'll also spend time with the cankered spirit of a KKK march depicted in Ugly Saturday and with the crass preaching of Profits Prophets.

David Crowe has used the same starting points in composing his original score. He'll also take his inspiration from Bach, Schoenberg, and the blue bluegrass of home. As usual, Crowe's score will be performed live from the Booth balcony.

Among the usual suspects in major roles, Sarah Emery returns for the new season as the Skater and Bearer of the Red Leaf while Joe Curry dances the Profit's Prophet. Local diva Gina Stewart makes her Moving Poets debut in an acting gig as the "Painter of Light, Color, and Forms." In the reprise of The Echo, Tanya McClellan and Randell Haynes will handle the speaking roles.

Now that the Empowerment Project has become acquainted with our Moving Poets, some of Southern Tour might wind up as part of the documentary project it took its inspiration from.

"They are coming in with a full crew on Saturday to film it during the day," Schmidt-Rimpler reveals, "and they will be there all week to decide what parts exactly they want to focus on."

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