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Blonde on Bland 

Small, monochromatic plays can work at big Belk Theater. I had no qualms about the all-white Art two years ago or the lightweight Male Intellect that rolled into the Performing Arts Center last winter. But from the instant we saw Mae West's severely cropped face blown-up and centered in Douglas Stein's pink-paneled set, Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde seemed to be wailing for a smaller, seedier venue. And a raunchier leading lady. This latest Broadway Lights Series miniature, like many a Neil Simon confection, sparkled with brisk pacing and sly by-play. Sadly, like the good Doc, Dirty Blonde grew skittish when it verged on substance.

Shear's script, co-conceived with master playwright/director James Lapine, has artsier layerings than your garden variety light comedy. Shear interweaves two stories into this 111-minute piece: West's bio and the story of a budding relationship between two of her ardent fans. Since both fans, Charlie and Jo, are infected by the impulse to dress up like their idol, there are many quick and dizzying intersects between their story and Mae's -- and the same actress plays Jo and Mae as we make the jumps.

With Shear herself taking on the dual role in the original off-Broadway and Broadway productions, there were deeply resonant echoes bouncing back and forth as the action of the play mirrored the motives of the playwright. That particular richness disappeared with Sally Mayes as the leading lady in the touring version. And whenever Mayes fell short on Mae's self-conceit and allure, further dimensions were lost.

If the immaculate Belk didn't help, the versatile supporting cast certainly did. I could almost believe this low-octane Mae was getting to me when I beheld her electric effect on Tom Riis Farrell as Charlie. Bob Stillman injected a welcome dose of urban sleaze portraying numerous men -- mostly showbiz types -- strewn across Mae's life.

John Carrafa had one truly inspired moment in his musical staging at the end of that naughty number. Recumbent on the floor at Mae's feet, Stillman and Farrell look up Mae's glittering dress and confirm that she truly is a dirty blonde.

More salty moments like that would have helped me forget that I was at the big formal Belk in the middle of the Bible Belt.

Up at Davidson College, the new Duke Family Performance Hall lived up to most of its hype in its gala opening last Saturday night. Better yet, the Royal Shakespeare Company's new touring version of The Merchant of Venice showed off many of the new theater's capabilities to fine advantage.

Sound carries nicely through the hall, though Row C was more distant from the action than I'd expected. The only other fault I could find with the facility was a stage built too low to the ground.

If you're insisting on a Merchant that plays like a fierce denunciation of anti-Semitism, this RSC version directed by Loveday Ingram will no doubt disappoint. Nor is the Stratford company at pains to fabricate a bisexual love triangle with the dashing Bassanio jointly desired by the rich Belmont heiress Portia and the Venetian merchant Antonio.

No, this Bassanio from Paul Hickey only has eyes for Portia, and his nonchalant ease in enlisting the merchant's financial resources comes across as suave, reckless, and charming -- thoughtfully topped with a twist of foreboding.

Ian Bartholomew doesn't simplify the question of whether Shakespeare was carried along by the prevailing tide of anti-Semitism in his portrayal of Shylock. The moneylender's diseased appetite for vengeance is never eclipsed by his impassioned -- and unanswered -- indignation toward the prejudice and scorn heaped upon him. Both sides are powerfully done by Bartholomew. Twice reciting Hebrew blessings, Shylock is both righteous and devilish by turns.

What's indicted most forcefully isn't usury so much as the blind prejudice -- and the commerce-centered lives -- that make Antonio and Shylock so akin. And what's so pretty about Ingram's reading is how serenely the two Belmont women, Portia and Nerissa, stand above the prejudice and materialism of the menfolk. Tremulous and beguiling as a woman, sternly just yet merciful as a judge, the clearly focused Portia we get from Hermione Gulliford is as illuminating as Bartholomew's richly ambiguous Shylock. Down to her core, she believes that laws apply equally to everyone and that oaths are truly sacred -- even between lovers.

Colin Falconer's production design transports the action to the turn-of-the-century days of Edward and Victoria, with the good guys wearing mostly deep burgundy hues and evincing a common appreciation for a good smoke. The modernized look could have become problematical in the climactic courtroom scene, where we're intended to believe that Shylock might actually cut out the heart of a fellow citizen and walk out into the streets of Venice afterwards.

Here Ingram restores the necessary medieval atmosphere by having Shylock take out an old-fashioned scale from his satchel and ceremoniously assemble it downstage center. It's a wonderful bonus that the ancient instrument for measuring the proverbial pound of flesh is also a hideous mockery of the scales of justice.

A fine new production at the loveliest theater space in the area -- everything that Davidson was hoping for.

Charlotte Rep's 16th Annual New Play Festival was a radically scaled-back affair compared with last year and years past. A new workshop production was canceled, there were no special Friday night guest performances, and no Saturday morning let-'er-rip reading upstairs in the Booth Playhouse lobby. On top of that, the staged readings of the four new plays, usually spread over six days, were condensed into a three-day run.

But all four plays got their customary two audiences, and two of the newborns were truly gifted.

Rep's production of Joan Vail Thorne's The Exact Center of the Universe won our Best Comedy award for 2000, and clearly Thorne's new drama, Signs and Wonders was the class prodigy of the 2002 Festival. It's a powerfully pointed, artfully structured tale of two women who become intertwined in the emotional tugs and the ethical questions of artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood. Since one of the women intently studies ancient fertility rites at college before embarking on a career as a gadfly magazine writer, the wonders of science are constantly counterweighted against the mysteries of belief. Engrossing, engaging, and deeply affecting.

Michael McKeever's grandiloquent comedy, The Dangerous Place, was the other big hit. Centering around a veteran pair of actors, father and daughter, and a dutiful son who keeps them from each other's throats, the egos, the posturing, and the rapid-fire one-liners make this thespian dynasty irresistible. "Theater is just like life," the orotund Edmund proclaims, "only with better lighting."

When I realized this hilarious piece was going to be about the son's rediscovery of himself and his long overdue return to the stage, I found myself shedding tears of joy. Unfortunately, the preternaturally original McKeever never realized that. So he opted for realism at the end and a conclusion that ties neatly to the beginning.

Neither Lucky Stars by Laddy Sartin nor Make My Day by George Scurlock was the worst dreck I'd ever seen at New Plays. Both, however, were noticeably below the level we've become accustomed to. *

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