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Card Table Gladiators 

Seniors got game

The simplest things go wrong for the elderly as they fumble their way through their final days -- or they're neatly deposited into nursing homes. Take the new Generations Theatre Group, which opened their first production at Shalom Park last week. Opening night was scheduled for last Thursday, but the Ice Storm of 2002 shut down the Jewish Community Center.

So The Gin Game had an opening matinee last Saturday afternoon. With so few groups like GTG anywhere, showcasing senior artists and dedicated to elderly audiences, surely providence should have granted this noble enterprise a more favorable launch out on Providence Road.

Spotlighted here are two fine senior performers, Gene Kusterer and Ann Owens, and a finely crafted D.L. Colburn script that won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize but hasn't been produced locally during the Loaf Era. Watching the sparks fly between Kusterer and Owens, you have to wonder why.

Kusterer is larger than life -- and balder -- as the seething Weller Martin, a hobbling retiree who has long deluded himself about his business acumen, his virtue as a husband and his prowess as a card player. Weller, though a keenly observed portrait, has no profound depths, but sometimes I wondered whether Kusterer was confusing his crustiness with King Lear's.

But the palsied physicality of the old man -- and his spasms of violence -- are compellingly rendered under Lon Bumgarner's deft direction. Slightly understated, Owens meshes perfectly as Fonsia Dorsey with Kusterer's flashiness. Clearly superior to her newfound companion at cards, Fonsia is also better at veiling her character flaws. You'll have underestimated Weller, however, if you think he can't ferret them out.

When the edgy comedy of the game is swallowed up by Weller's frustration and rage, Owens' demure dignity melts away with a spontaneity that startled some of the seniors in the audience at Gorelick Hall -- with language to match. Suddenly gin rummy becomes mortal combat.

In the fray, we realize that in each other, Weller and Fonsia have chosen replications of mates they have discarded or alienated in the past. Both are making the wrong play in this card game, and both will lose.

GTG has begun auspiciously after all. Yes, they're targeting old-timers, but their arrows are tipped with steel. Younger theatergoers can delight with their elders in the marksmanship.

Chamber concerts showcasing the ethereal harp are rare enough in Charlotte. But when harpist Betsey Sesler limped to her instrument last Tuesday -- with her pedal foot encased in a cast -- December's installment in the Chamber Music at St. Peter's series became utterly unique.Sesler's broken ankle necessitated a change in the program. The leadoff spot in the concert had to be reset because of demands placed on Sesler's pedal foot. So instead of a work for flute and harp by modern French composer Andre Jolivet, we were treated to a pedal-free suite by an American six years younger, the mystical medievalist Alan Hovhaness.Pagan and sensuous as its inspiration might be, The Garden of Adonis was a perfect choice for the St. Peter's acoustic. While Amy Orsinger Whitehead's flute resonated enticingly with ripe tone and agile flight, Sesler's magical intros and swirling accompaniment twinkled with crystalline clarity.

Luckily, the featured work by North Carolina composer Dan Locklair, Dream Steps, was already attuned to Sesler's diminished comfort zone. With violist Marie Winget added to the instrumental mix, Sesler took on a somewhat diminished role. In the breakout movements of the piece, titled "Awakenings" and "Bars of Blues," harp was largely relegated to the background. But Sesler recaptured our fascination in the "Ballade in Sarabande" section, playing percussion by pounding on the side of the harp and then rapping the middle of its spine.

Children's Theatre has brought the raucous Herdman kids back to Spirit Square in a revamped version of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Anna Sarton's set design echoes Piet Mondrian, with cut-outs that allow director Joanna Gerdy to impose systematic chaos. The effervescent abstraction reminded me of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and Nickelodeon's You Can't Do That on Television.

Often, Gerdy's jailbreak concept upstages the comical licks delivered by Lolly Foy as the upstanding Grace Bradley, substitute director of the endangered pageant. The dictatorial Mrs. Armstrong, deposed by a broken leg, also pales by comparison to the termagant of yore though Jill Bloede is still an appealing goofball.

Herdmans who impress most are little Liz Sea as Gladys, our incorrigible Herald Angel, and glad-ragged Mereda Mason as the bullying Imogene, softening miraculously into the role of Virgin Mary. Best of the other youths is Michael Norton as the Herdmans' #1 patsy, Charlie Bradley.

Kids still eat up the Yuletide desecration. But overall, this frenetic vanilla effort from Children's is their worst Best Christmas Pageant ever.

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