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Chat Room S&M 

Going onstage to go online

Enter the Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, where Carlos Murillo's dark play or stories for boys runs through April 26, and you've penetrated a portal housing the nuts and bolts of the computer universe. Circuit boards line the walls and the ceiling, your program and your ticket – a memory chip? – get handed to you through server shelving by people immune to claustrophobia, and gazillions of mice lurk everywhere.

The mouse infestation pervades even the computerized restrooms with their PC monitor mirrors. Evidently the mousetraps, strewn in the lobby and around the commodes, baited with computer chips, are a feebly failed attempt at pest control.

Your only escape is inside the enclosed CAST boxagon. Entrances to this slick cyberspace are a hybrid design by Mondrian and Intel. The center of the arena stage is a super-dupersized motherboard, and your seats? Picture yourself sitting on a single key in the infinite keyboard of the cosmos.

Even before the production begins, your eyes are drawn to the huge LCD screens that dominate the walls over your fellow audience members. You're gliding low across a keyboard terrain until the lights go down. Thanks to the brilliant multimedia exploits of Jay Thomas, you often feel creepily online -- and in a chat room -- once the action begins.

Nick, arrestingly performed by Robert L. Simmons, CL's newly crowned Actor/Theaterperson of Year, is our storyteller. We are his confidants as Nick weighs the question of responding to his latest sexual conquest, Molly, who is curious about the circuitry of scars on his torso. Should he come clean with the truth, or "make shit up"?

He begins telling us a twisted tale of domination and subjugation, centering on a cyber naïf, fittingly named Adam, that Nick picks up in the chat room -- and epically strings along. The primary lure in Nick's victimization of Adam is Rachel, an avatar who fulfills Adam's adolescent fantasies. To meet -- and hopefully mate -- with Rachel, Adam is willing to do anything. Prompted by Nick to turn on his webcam, he does Rachel's bidding.

Keeping his mark hooked for long hours, days and months, Nick will eventually invent other avatars from the Rachel cosmos, including a predatory stepfather, a CIA agent and, to add a little spice to the deception, Nick himself. Gradually, we see that Nick's obsession with all this elaborate b.s. he's heaping upon his chat buddy might turn the perpetrator into the prime casualty.

Murillo is screwing with us while Nick is screwing over Adam. Are we merely voyeurs as this elaborate sexual exploitation unfolds, or as Nick's frowzy drama teacher proclaims, does all vital drama hold up a mirror to its audience? In short, is Nick us?

There were times, I confess, when I had to wonder. The technical sophistication of this production is high enough that the unfurling texts in the projected chat room dialogue boxes are like the heartbeat of Murillo's characters. Why would I be inclined to watch those screens -- rather than fixing my attention on the most charismatic young actor we have in Charlotte?

Must be that I'm a little hooked on the eye candy and caca that bombard me daily via various screens. Oh yes, Thomas' video delectations go far beyond tracking the chat. Sex, violence, comedy: Our daily video bread is all deliciously up there on the big screen. Meanwhile, spouse Paige Johnston Thomas deftly uses the arena stage directing this show, getting extraordinary performances from Robert Crozier as Adam, Jennifer Barnette as the too-good-to-be-true Rachel, and Cynthia Farbman in dual roles as Nick's mom and teacher.

But against the backdrop of excellence that Simmons has given us in recent years, it's no small thing to declare that his Nick is also extraordinary. Did I mention that he also designed the set? I'll admit it: After crowning Simmons and Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (Company of the Year) with their 2007 Charlotte Theater Awards one day before dark play opened, I was holding my breath. Now I'm exhaling big-time.

Tween Girls Rule!

Check out the lines of people who will scoot over to Ovens Auditorium a full 2.5 hours before every performance, hoping to land one of 10 pairs of $25 orchestra seats in the daily lotteries at the box office. No, Wicked isn't the exclusive mania of tween girls.

"Producers of Wicked view it as a multi-generational show," says Tom Gabbard, president of the NC Blumenthal PAC, which courted the national tour for years before landing it her. "They take exception to being characterized as a show that succeeded on the tween market, the teenage girl. It's a great date-night show -- it works for all ages. That's its beauty. If it were just a niche thing, and it were just Hannah Montana or something, it would play itself out pretty quickly."

But even Gabbard will admit that those empowerment-hungry girls are a goldmine -- and key factors in Wicked's success.

"There's no doubt that the youth market really helped it, particularly at the outset," he asserts. "And I think the marketers on Broadway learned a lot through Wicked about that market and its ability to generate buzz with text messaging and a whole bunch of things."

Newer shows like Legally Blonde and The Little Mermaid also spin tales of nubile female empowerment. If Wicked hit their tween girl target without really trying, the blockbuster's offspring are savvier. They know that tweens are the straw that stirs the family drink.

"I'd say there are a lot of similarities between the Wicked crowd and the Legally Blonde crowd," Gabbard observes. "Number one, it has a base that is energized by that teenage girl. But then her mom hears about it from her, and then the dad hears about it, and it just kind of infuses itself into the whole family. Both of them have some very positive messages, are real girl power stories."

Aiming at the tweens and teens has been a huge factor in revitalizing the Broadway scene. With the arrival of Beauty and the Beast and its Disney descendants, Oprah and her Color Purple, and the revitalizing of the Rent bloodline with Spring Awakening, the hand-wringing of yesteryear has vanished.

"It's pretty exciting right now in New York," Gabbard agrees. "It's no longer that older white theatergoer that was the mainstay; it's a much, much more diverse, younger audience. It's a healthy situation."

Healthy? Could be a bumpy ride for Broadway theater if tweens toting American Girl® dolls were in the driver's seat. But the proliferation of high-quality straight plays on Broadway this season suggests that wide-eyed girleens aren't the only youth driving the bus. New audiences, new playwrights and new marketing models are all in the mix.

So are those cute cuddly tweeners, who may have steered that bus out of the ditch at just the right moment. Given the choice of bankrolling a tween's doll to a perm and a manicure or shelling out full Broadway price for a Wicked ticket, I know what I'd do.

Of course, the lines are longer for Wicked tickets than for American Girl® doll manicures. That's entertainment.

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