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Body With a Weight Problem 

A script in the hand . . .

It's a curious phenomenon. But oftentimes after I've enthusiastically attended a reading of a play, where the actors haven't memorized their lines, I'm subsequently dissatisfied with a full production of the same script that should have benefited from extensive rehearsals, scenery, and all the artfully designed trimmings. Sadly, that's the case with the current Chickspeare/BareBones Theatre Group co-production of Why We Have a Body, which Chickspeare introduced late in 2001 in a script-in-hand version at Garbo's.

Readings, like radio dramas, tend to encourage audiences to free flights of the imagination. A dangerous thing when a critic is involved because we're being given license to trespass into the director's domain.

What has happened at the SouthEnd Performing Arts Center might also be the result of the production process. From experience, I know that characters who were light and funny at auditions or at the first read-through can -- through repetition, analysis, and the actors' empathy -- grow cynical or even frightful by opening night.

For whatever cause, the Chickspeare/ BareBones Body is seriously overweight. Sullenness, gravity, cocksureness, and realism are undercutting playwright Claire Chafee's sprightliness.

Yes, she's addressing the new options and opportunities available to women. But the quirkiness, the giddiness, and the candid confusion I witnessed at Garbo's have calcified to the point where we might almost accuse Chafee of a manifesto.

Don't blame the talent. I found it perversely fascinating to behold how off-key and badly integrated these four polished performances could be. Meghan Lowther makes the larcenous Mary a maverick to the bone. Whether knocking off a 7-Eleven or trying to go straight as a traffic guard, this Mary revels in authority. Back in 2001 when Julie Janorschke played the role, Mary was a hilarious misfit on either side of the law. Emulating men at their worst, Chafee seemed to be slyly telling us, was a logical direction for feminists -- but not a comfortable one.

Janorschke is the stage director in the present case, which makes Mary's alteration doubly confounding. Lowther, however, brings her own energy to Mary, so it isn't as much of a letdown as Joanna Gerdy's takeover of Lili, a lesbian detective. One of Charlotte's more stoical and introspective performers, Gerdy saps Lili of all her private-eye daring and instinct, playing her with all the impulsiveness -- in tone and costume -- of a librarian.

But the dreariness of this brooding lesbian dick does inadvertently help to explain why her mother, after abandoning her daughters to explore faraway places, gives so little thought to re-establishing contact. Hey, she's being manly, too! Trouble is, Annette Gill as Eleanor never convinces me she was ever part of the same family as Lili and Mary. Their rootlessness smacks of the wide prairies; Gill's plucky curiosity is pure Delancey Street.

Amid the heists and the hip boots, paleontologist Renee is an island of femininity under her lab coat. But Renee Island is under siege from Lili's lesbian overtures. Renee is successful, glamorous, married. She hasn't even gone into the closet, let alone come out. Still there's a cool serenity to Caroline Renfro's portrayal that confirms Lili's intuition that she's playing out of her league.

Listening to these individualists, I was struck with the notion that Chafee equates Women's Liberation with the Big Bang. Women of the 20th Century were blasted free of their moorings, emancipated from stereotypes, history, and family obligations. Recklessly, jubilantly, and capriciously, they're scattering in all directions -- without a roadmap. As the scenes, monologues, and dialogues zip by in Why We Have a Body, there are occasional aperus that illuminate the moment like brilliant stars scattered across the universe. But the next moment is mostly a dark, absurdly comical enigma.

That's still worth experiencing in this oddly discordant production.

Written back in the days when telephones had cords, Rumors is still one of Neil Simon's most reliable laugh machines -- and one of his least familiar. The current Theatre Charlotte revival was a bit slow reaching cruising speed last Friday. Things should quickly spin out of control as the Deputy Mayor of New York is discovered alone in his bedroom with a self-inflicted bullet wound just before his 10th anniversary soiree.

Playing Ken Gorman, the protective lawyer who finds his client in a potentially compromising position, Kevin Campbell seems to be aiming for urbanity instead of frenzy. Tempo and cue pick-up were uncharacteristically slow for this theater veteran as he tried to coach his dithery wife Chris (Elyse Williams) in discreetly answering the family doctor's questions over the phone.

Energy picked up noticeably with the arrival -- fresh from a car wreck -- of the Dep Mayor's accountant and his wife. When Ken felt compelled to come clean with the details, overreactions by Donna Scott and Matt Merrell as Claire and Lenny Ganz infused the party with an exhilarating sense of ridiculous alarm. Jim Esposito and Polly Adkins soon arrived as Ernie and Cookie, a jolly psychologist and his TV cooking show hostess, adding fresh layers of goofiness and physical comedy.

Then a gunshot rang out upstairs, deafening Ken, a hilarious ailment that finally brought Campbell's timing and comedy to their fullest acuity. Everything rumbled along beautifully until the brace of silly catastrophes ending Act 1. Unaccountably, as a two-million-year-old crystal went down the toilet and whatnot, tempo decelerated to a slo-mo pace.

But aside from a couple of misfires on sound cues from that pesky telephone, the second act went much better. So should the second week when this capable cast starts firing on all cylinders.

North Carolina Dance Theatre celebrated the centennial of Peter Pan last week with a rousing new ballet from artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux. After making the surprising choice of recruiting a quartet of Rossini overtures to the cause, Bonnefoux allowed himself to be carried along by the composer's effervescence.

The bittersweet stage ending tacked on by J.M. Barrie to his original novelette was blithely discarded. Nor did Tinkerbell take one for the team and swallow the poisoned milk Captain Hook left for the fairy's darling Peter. Bonnefoux outlawed all gravitas.

But while the audience didn't get to affirm their belief in fairies, they did have the opportunity to participate early on, called upon to clap so that Wendy could fly. You couldn't ask for a more delicious Wendy than Mia Cunningham, who took to the air like a lark. Costumed in bosky vines, Jason Jacobs personified the boundless joy and conceit of Peter.

Uri Sands was hilariously melodramatic as Hook while Traci Gilchrest brought a pinch of allure to Tiger Lily. Prime scene stealers were Ayisha McMillan as a pouty, jealous Tinkerbell and Jesse Harrell as the Croc. Bonnefoux and Harrell strove tirelessly to make Hook's nemesis the funkiest ever. They succeeded.

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