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Chicks with Swords in Eden 

Plus, shadows of lions

The strapping Valkyrie warrior Hilde, the Greek earth goddess Gaia and the Far Eastern goddess of compassion, Kwan-Yin, are all far, far, fahrblunjet in Stan Peal's sprawling new drama, Goddess and the Magdalene. For non-Yiddish speakers, I'll translate: they're spectacularly lost, displaced from their native climes, converging upon Jerusalem in the wake of Jesus' crucifixion and ascension.

From all the questing urgency of these three lady divinities -- not to mention the turmoil of apostle Peter and brother James -- you'd almost think the Nazarene hadn't brought us everlasting redemption and salvation. The early Christians and the ancient goddesses vie for the allegiance of Mary Magdalene, witness to the resurrection, widow of Jesus and carrier of his teachings.

Score that contest Pagans 1, Christians 0.

The gals want to reclaim Eden (newly re-imagined by Peal without fruit or nakedness), seeing Magdalene as a vital contributor to their quest -- after a modicum of tutelage in swordplay and the martial arts. Peter merely wants Mary to get behind his authoritarian version of the Nazarene's teachings, adding her personal credibility to his cult without rocking the boat.

Given Peter's resemblance to General George S. Patton, Mary doesn't dally long before making her choice, even though she is still reeling from the loss of her husband. The obstacles ahead of the divine sorority, chiefly the triumvirate of angels guarding the Garden, add suspense to the drama, and the pursuit of Peter -- not one to turn his cheek when he's crossed -- compounds the peril.

The whole quest takes on too much of a medieval flavor if you ask me, more like Tolkein or the Arthurian knights than an apocryphal Bible tale. But if you like a roaring action spectacle -- with heavy sprinklings of myth, magic, mysticism and heretical religion -- Magdalene serves up an intoxicating brew.

Epic Arts Repertory comes through with its most lavish production to date. Costume design by Myk Chambers is extraordinary for a fringe production. Lighting by Hallie Gray traverses the full range from Paradise to murky gloom, fight choreographer Kurt Gerard Heinlein nearly always skirts the repetitive and the ridiculous amid the many skirmishes and Drew Nowlin's puppet designs deliver their requisite frisson. Peal, the managing director at Epic Arts, multitasks with distinction: besides directing his own play, he has designed the widest, most exotic set ever built at Actor's Theatre.

Nor is he sitting idly in the wings as his huge cast performs. Working with sound designer Anthony Proctor, Peal provides the live component of the soundtrack as the show's percussionist. Another pagan victory.

Peal's wife, Epic Arts artistic director Laura Depta, is nothing short of wondrous as the Magdalene. She emerges from a disoriented daze, embarking on a personal journey that ends with soldier-like surety without the slightest loss of femininity. Counterbalanced against her, Alan Nelson gives Peter a fearsome self-righteousness that isn't easily forgotten.

Marilyn Carter is certainly in her element as Gaia, bringing a sunny, sagely tint to the earth goddess while Carrie Anne Hunt is the essence of silken delicacy as Kwan-Yin. Annette Saunders handles the broadsword admirably as Hilde, shouldering most of the combat chores, but this Valkyrie occasionally lapsed into inaudibility.

Hopscotching across time as well as continents, Peal attempts to increase the relevance and connection of his ancient tale to the present day. You may, however, find the action more difficult to grasp rather than easier because of the contemporary frame that Peal employs. We start off in some Spanish-speaking country, nowhere near Eden or Jerusalem, with a raving holy woman babbling in English to an American explorer who serendipitously wanders into her village.

Until the very end, we never get more than the barest hints to explain why we need to hear this story through Helene's fevered lips. But she and her interlocutor Paul are nicely done by Amanda Nicastro and Glenn Hutchinson. Far more delectable is our journey back in time as we watch Adam and his daughter Eve seduced by Mamma Lilith. Barbi Van Schaick is lascivious and alluring as Lilith, reappearing as Peter's dangerously capricious wife Joanna.

Dual roles, yes, but is Peal hinting that Joanna is the reincarnation of Lilith? After seeing what happens to Magdalene in the brutally tragic denouement, I found myself reconsidering.

Ultimately, the most disorienting aspect of Magdalene for Peal aficionados is its almost relentless seriousness. The playwright has saved his winsome irreverence and quirky wit for another day. I wish he hadn't.

 

Having witnessed the visual splendors of The Lion King when it first invaded Belk Theater in 2002, I have to admit that I wasn't overly eager to attend the return engagement. Part of the reason I did go was that I'd totally forgotten the reasons why I felt so hesitant.

Needless to say, the current touring version, crouching at Belk Theater for a leonine six weeks, vividly reminded me of the jungle musical's shortcomings. These begin and end with the comic relief characters that are part of every Disney cartoon confection, pesky little gnats that are dispatched to fill our ears with a constant stream of stupid babble. I wish these malignant tumors were surgically removed from Disney's rigid formula just once, but I'm sure management views them as inoperable.

Long before I was assaulted by Zazu's dodo bird chatter -- and the fresh waves of schtick from meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa -- I found that director Julie Taymor's unique way with costumes, masks and puppets was nearly as revelatory as it had been the first time around. And no less enchanting.

With Lion King no longer quite as snap-your-head-back dazzling as it was five years ago, I found myself paying keener attention to the music, the orchestrations and the whole exotic soundscape that permeates Pride Rock and points beyond. All are marvelous, and the vocal artillery delivering the payload, beginning with Phindile Mkhize as the griot Rafiki and Dionne Randolph as old King Hamlet -- sorry, that's Mufasa -- is as potent as you could wish.

Nothing sounds ersatz when we hear the African beat, even if most of the score is by Sir Elton. Everything is dialed Disney-right for the future king and queen, Simba and Nala. Malcolm-Ali Davis and Dylan Jenèt Collins had the right amounts of energy and innocence as the young prince and princess. Dashaun Young and Erica Ash are even more precisely calibrated as the pubescent royals, combining elements of the warbling Snow White with both the princely and nuzzling dimensions of Bambi.

Timothy Carter stands in effective contrast as the Mufasa's murderous brother Scar. He's surrounded by a servile, obsequious set of hyenas who punctuate their comical yammerings with occasional lashings of bloodthirsty appetite. Jayne Trinette, Randy Donaldson, and Michael Nathanson are dynamos as these loathsome scavengers.

The beauty of Lion King caresses you with tropical lighting, ingenious set design by Richard Hudson, and Taymor's costuming/mask-making/puppeteering genius. But you'll find the soul nestled in those primitive African grooves when the show comes home to its roots. If you've seen it before, go again to soak in the vibes. If you're coming to it for the first time, come twice. You can't even see it all the first time.

 

Austin Pendleton has given us an oddly shaped bauble in Orson's Shadow, chronicling the historic ego summit -- Orson Welles directing Sir Laurence Olivier -- that resulted in the first London performance of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros in 1960. We take the entire first act for titanic confrontation to be set up, turning theater critic Kenneth Tynan into the conniving anti-hero of the piece.

If Pendleton's storytelling is willfully as ungainly as a rhino, the BareBones Theatre Group production is well worth bagging in its final week at Duke Power Theatre. Chad Calvert brings the rotund, midlife, failed genius of Welles to lide with uncanny physical accuracy, an impression that is only magnified if you recognize the voice of the Paul Masson vineyards.

Robert Haulbrook is nearly as remarkable as Tynan: stammering with astonishing spontaneity and bestowing an equal verisimilitude on the chain-smoker's hacking fits. It's a performance that occasionally upstages Calvert's mountainous appetite and urbanity.

Dave Blamy has a slightly rough go of it as Olivier, partly because he doesn't resemble the gracefully graying icon physically and partly because Pendleton's script offers Larry sparse chances to even sound like the immortal Shakespearean. Fact is, Pendleton shows him as spineless in his vacillation toward his wife, supernova Vivien Leigh, and clueless in attempting to portray the anti-hero of Rhinoceros. There's little chance for Blamy to even take a stab at Olivier's grandeur as he fails to break up with Leigh and rush to the youthful, loving arms of Rhino co-star Joan Plowright. But he certainly nails Larry's foibles.

What you may find most surprising of all is the breakout performance of Elyse A. Williams as Leigh. No fiddle-dee-dees here as Williams shuttles between coquetry, bawdy flirtation, star-powered arrogance and flights of outright insanity -- often without a runway for take-off.

So as oddly as Pendleton has written it, his backstage peep into the lives of the talented and famous provides roles for no less than four actors to drool over. Courtney Johnson as Plowright and Patrick Howsare as a young gofer chip in fine work as the bystanders.

Orson's Shadow is wickedly clever and highly partisan toward Welles. Life wasn't fair to the boy genius after Citizen Kane, and Pendleton redresses the imbalance with obvious relish, even breaking the fourth wall to do his spicy dirty work. Have a taste.

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