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Bellying Up At The Bar 

BareBones show burns with passion

With its cushy armchairs, antiquated sofas and elegant tables, there's a distinctively clubby feel to the Sunset Club down on South Boulevard. Yet the woodwork, the lighting and the bar add enough roadhouse flavoring to make this venue perfect for the steamy action of Torches, the high-octane dramatic cocktail from the BareBones Theatre Group.

In the tradition of her "Hotel Project" of 2003, which brought two original one-acts to a suite at the Uptown Marriott, producer Anne Lambert is calling this environmental staging of Stephanie Young's play "The Bar Project." The torches carried by our protagonists are not the aboriginal sort favored by the Survivor series. No, these torches are carried by a married man and his mistress for each other. Interior, inextinguishable torches.

To orient us in the here and now, director Matt Cosper localizes the geography so that Michael's delay in arriving at his tryst with Samantha involves the Brookshire Freeway. Nothing elsewhere in the script really necessitates that the action take place in a bar -- or in America.

Both Michael and Sam clearly see the toxicity at the core of their relationship. As they warily circle one another -- drenched in a volatile mix of anger, fear and ultra-ardent passion -- they're like two moths drawn to the same flame.

As opposed to Yeats' ever-widening gyres, the circles traced by the lovers' encounters become progressively shorter. Exactly what these circles are is open to conjecture. At first, they seem like start-overs to this pivotal rendezvous, pleaded for by one of the pair when the reunion goes badly after long months apart. That straightforward explanation, however, becomes increasingly implausible as the replays pile up.

Maybe we're watching a series of reveries in Sam's mind as she waits for Michael to arrive. Or, more abstract, perhaps we're viewing a catalog of train wrecks that are the inevitable result of such ill-advised relationships. Or we're journeying through an intricate labyrinth leading us back to the starting point. Least flattering of all: We may be watching abortive drafts of the same drama deftly stitched together by the playwright.

With the entire production clocking in at less than 53 minutes, unanimity can be reached on one thing. Unlike conventional dramas, which are dutifully endowed with a beginning, a middle and an end, Torches comes equipped with multiple beginnings. Their cumulative weight points toward an ending that we never see.

What we do see is highly charged, thanks to the sizzling chemistry between Adyana de la Torre and Blake Edwards. De la Torre's passion, frustrated and embittered, seethes beneath an outward restlessness and explodes in unconditional surrender. If you saw her mesmerizing turn as Egypt in Orange Lemon Egg Canary last fall, prepare for even more de la Torre voltage at the Sunset Club.

Edwards has the louder, angrier demeanor as Michael in his Charlotte debut. But his main force is directed against his predicament. In a nicely gauged performance, he is the less decisive of the two. Even when he yields to his burning lust, hesitation and guilt are never quite cast aside.

Cosper obviously revels in the ambiguities. You'll also notice that he moves his cast resourcefully in the Sunset dining area, sending each at least once from the center of the room to the bar, rolling the lovers provocatively on the floor, and staging a belly-to-belly tango that nearly brings the sexual combustion into the audience.

Arrive at the Sunset early, order your favorite libation at the bar and settle in for a unique theater experience. There's a fireplace roaring at the rear for Torches -- and plenty of body heat up front.

Considering that he was once a Tarradiddle Player himself, Alan Poindexter has taken a long time to turn his directorial talents toward the beloved vagabonds. Well, now that ImaginOn is up and humming, the Children's Theatre artistic director is beginning to make up for lost time.

The Yellow Boat is an extraordinary journey for the Tarradiddle Players, telling the heartbreaking story of Benjamin Saar, a young hemophiliac who contracts AIDS from a blood transfusion. The stylized storytelling is by the boy's aggrieved father, yet David Saar's script -- obviously inspired by Benjamin's ordeal -- never endows his protagonist with preternatural courage or fortitude.

Watching the onset of Benjamin's illness, I couldn't help feeling angry over the insensitivity of the medical establishment. At times, the isolation imposed upon the victimized child by neighbors and school administrators seemed more hurtful than the disease. Fortunately, as people became better educated about AIDS, Benjamin was less stigmatized.

Benjamin asks some elemental questions when he realizes that he's dying: Will it hurt? What comes after? Parents must be prepared to wrestle with those toughies as well as some implied by the story. Why is Benjamin afflicted with hemophilia in the first place?

As outstanding as Chaz Pofahl is in portraying Benjamin's boyishness, peevishness and his prevailing artistic temperament, you're likely to be equally impressed by at least a couple of the other Tarradiddlers. Nikki Adkins is a sunbeam of delight as Joy, the pixie nurse who finally perks up Benjamin's spirits, and Greta Marie Zandstra is pure subtlety and spontaneity as Ben's troubled mom.

Benjamin ultimately believes that he will sail up to the sun in his yellow boat -- just like the song his parents taught him. There's a big red heart in the middle of that sun as the lights go down. Meanwhile, half a dozen examples of the real-life Benjamin's drawings are posted outside of Wachovia Playhouse.

Well done.

Decked out in a fiery red dress, pianist Olga Kern wasted no time impressing her audience at Belk Theater last week, tackling some formidable fingerbusters by Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Liszt. Even more breathtaking was the aquamarine number -- festooned with gold -- that she wore after intermission.

Kern certainly displayed the technical chops worthy of a Van Cliburn International Competition winner. Yet artistically, this Carolinas Concert Association event was among the most frustrating I can remember.

When Kern stayed true to the melody line, she could spin finer gold than the filigree she wore. Her Liszt "Reminiscences" swaggered with Don Juan élan, teeming with fun. Rach's "Prelude in C Minor" declaimed boldly with heartfelt histrionics. Other times, Kern sliced, diced and pulverized the line, so that the result was nearly unrecognizable to anyone familiar with the repertoire. The Rach transcription from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream scherzo was pedaled to submission, all its nocturnal fairy magic blown away by ill-judged pacing and sloppy phrasing. Kern then shredded the double-speed section of Chopin's Sonata #2.

The crowd applauded wildly, evidently believing the piece was written in a single movement. So it went.

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