The stage is almost totally bare at McColl Family Theatre when you come in to see The Shakespeare Stealer. You can see the walls at the sides, far into the wings, and you can see the dark rear projection room high up along the exposed rear wall. But don't take this minimalist artsy tableau as a signal to make a beeline to the box office for a refund on your tickets.
As soon as the lights go down, the current Children's Theatre of Charlotte production will take you on a memorably theatrical journey through Gary Blackwood's youth-oriented adventure yarn. Yes, we follow 14-year-old Widge as he's deployed to filch the text of Shakespeare's Hamlet at the premiere performance. We see the orphan embraced by the company he was sent to steal from, socialized by the mentors who teach him swordplay and acting, seduced by the actor's life, and humanized by the company's trust and camaraderie.
And yes, that rear projection room gets into the act. Emphatically.
But the birth of Widge's ethical core -- his blossoming in the sunlight of love and friendship -- runs parallel with a powerful subtext that Blackwood could hardly have imagined when he launched his Elizabethan series in 1998. Playing his cards face-up and taking us to 1602 England with creatio ex nihilo speed, director Alan Poindexter and his superb design team bring us an awesome celebration of theater magic and the conjuring powers of our imaginations.
Blackwood wrote the stage adaptation now on view at ImaginOn. He visited the facility last Friday on opening night and returned the following morning to read his adaptation of Shakespeare's Scribe, the sequel to Stealer. I'd wager that Blackwood was pleased with the professional polish of this production -- and blown away by the concept.
With some of Charlotte's finest onstage and in the design team, execution is near-perfect. Gina Stewart gets to range from a gat-toothed street beggar to the Virgin Queen. Longtime Shakespearean actor/director Tony Wright gets to be the Bard himself. Ah, but these stellar performers are mostly on the periphery.
Closer to the heart of the action is Scott Helm, fearsome enough in his few minutes as Widge's master, Dr. Timothy Bright, to leave us with a visceral impression of the hardships that scarred the lad's upbringing. Then with almost Falstaffian geniality, Helm settles into the mentoring role of Thomas Pope, seasoned actor and partner in the Globe.
Widge's transition from Yorkshire bumpkin to member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men in London occurs when a sinister theater owner learns of Widge's shorthand skills and buys him from Bright. Moonlighting ever so briefly as Prince Hamlet, Mark Sutton doubles as both the avuncular master, Simon Bass, and his feral minion, Falconer.
While Widge weighs his loyalties to master and company -- and the threat of Falconer cutting his throat if he doesn't deliver -- a nice fabric of subplot is woven among an inner circle of peers closer to Widge's age. Tara MacMullen and Ryan Stamey are the closest. Stamey epitomizes all that is most agreeable about an acting apprenticeship as Widge's warmly welcoming roomie, Sander. As Julian, MacMullan has a far more stressed, ambiguous character nicely gauged.
Rounding out the supporting cast are Brandon Ellis as Armin, the swordmaster who acts as Widge's protector, and Matt Cosper as dissolute apprentice Nick Tooley. The antagonism between Tooley and his fellow apprentices ties more than a couple of plot threads together, exemplifying Blackwood's storytelling craftsmanship.
Keeping with honored CT tradition, there's a teen actor, Stephen Friedrich, in the title role. After making an impressive mark as the conflicted Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe last fall, Friedrich conquers even more difficult challenges in the counterintuitive role of Widge. As the green apprentice, he must flub lines and miss cues, and he's nearly always onstage. Conflicted and confounded at times.
Friedrich was very good at last Saturday's matinee, and I expect him to be even better the next two weekends. While Shakespeare Stealer won't be threatening the attendance records set by The Lion, it deserves a place on the same artistic pedestal. A far more ambitious piece, the C.S. Lewis adaptation had a few rough edges when it launched ImaginOn, mostly attributable to getting acquainted with a new space.
If the sprawling Lion was comparable in scope and impact to the Bard's Antony and Cleopatra, then Shakespeare Stealer can be looked upon as Poindexter's The Tempest in terms of its inwardness, resonance and artistry. A directorial masterwork.
Since 1989, when Charlotte Shakespeare Company was in residence at UNC-Charlotte, On the Verge has had numerous productions on campuses around town. That's not surprising, since Eric Overmyer's fanciful, time-traveling comedy is inebriated with language and aglow with unabashed braininess.
Now under the direction of Robert Tolan, Generation Theatre Group is bringing On the Verge off-campus and into town. The expedition that beaches on Terra Incognita in 1888 isn't quite the same starchy Victorian trio I've seen before. Tolan & Co. have muted the ladies' braininess, spouting such linguistic bombs as "cacophonous echolalia" and "cornucopia of concupiscence" as if they were casual asides a woman might make while washing dishes or stirring a pot of chili.
More importantly, Tolan layers on GTG's unique senior-citizen point of view, casting the ever-stern Peggy Irons as the ever-questing archeologist, Mary Baltimore, and bestowing upon her a modicum of authority over her more youthful travel companions. So when Mary parts company with the other two, leaving them stuck in 1955 with a biker and a lounge Lothario, we can infer that her motives for continuing her Ulysses-like wanderings are as much hormonal as spiritual.
All that might have a totally delicious effect if Tolan had coaxed Annette Saunders into being consistently audible as Terre Haute reporter Fanny Cranberry. She's like a black hole in this production while every moment given over to Zillah Glory as Alex Cafuffle is an oasis of bubbling spontaneity. Joe Copley plays everybody that the explorers meet, from a greedy troll to Mr. Coffee -- plus all the ladies' love interests. While he falls short of Tim Ross's definitive performance with Charlotte Shakespeare, Copley transcends his usual sangfroid.
Technically, with Michael R. Simmons handling set design at his Carolina Actors Studio home, the production is a winner. The mix of antique cartographic elements with dayglo crime scene police ribbons chimes perfectly with Overmyer's quirkiness. Better still, the polar region of the floor is a stage-wide turntable. So every scene change is infused with fun and fluidity while our heroines can trek to their hearts' content without ever leaving.