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Commedia dell'Kushner 

Illusion comes into clear focus

Maybe it's a queer phase of the moon. Two of our young theater companies opened last Thursday night with productions of comedies by estimable playwrights -- and both have odd, unexpected overlays. At the Afro-Am Cultural Center, where BareBones Theatre Group is making their valedictory appearance, the Italianate commedia dell'arte style is being layered onto Tony Kushner's adaptation of The Illusion, an early comedic lark penned by French tragedian Pierre Corneille in the 1630s.

The mix works rather well in the cave of Alcandre, sorcerer/showman/charlatan extraordinaire. An old lawyer, Pridamant of Avignon, descends into the wiz's dungeon in quest of new information about his spirited, romantic son, who fled to parts unknown some years before. Instead of answering outright -- anathema in the necromancy racket -- Alcandre shows Pridamant a succession of visions.

Each of the visions features Pridamant's son, but each time he goes by a different name. So do his paramour, her female confidante and his arch rival. New commedia masks are commandeered for each identity change.

While the mystery of all these reincarnations is explained at evening's end, it remains unclear whether Alcandre is telling the truth -- and beautifully apropos that Pridamant isn't itching to test the wizard's pronouncement. He leaves contentedly with Alcandre's hefty bill, for what may have been nothing more than a series of illusions, no longer feeling any urgency to reunite or reconcile with his heir. Rarely will you see so great a fool wearing such nicely tailored clothes.

Or perhaps the wily Kushner means to induct us into Pridamant's hoodwinked brotherhood. Here we've been served up a play in the most artificial fashion, and several of us may be exiting satisfied that we've been sent off with a tidy resolution. Shouldn't the title, The Illusion, be telling us otherwise?

Chad Calvert has directed and designed with an extravagance that belies BareBones' signature austerity. Makeup, not often a big woof in Charlotte theatricals, is so elaborate for Alcandre that I didn't recognize actor John Price until he emerged fully from his hood. Shaven bald and clad in an executioner's rig, Peter Smeal, portraying Alc's deaf and dumb servant, looks remarkably like Jackie Coogan when he devolved into Uncle Fester on The Addams Family.

Together with Merritt Wheeler, who gives Pridamant a winning combination of starch and stupidity, it's the elder gargoyles who carry The Illusion. By comparison, the quartet of amorous youths comes across as vapid and feckless. Except for Kylene Edson as the confidante, seemingly beyond her depth in an adult theater piece, the acting is not the problem. Christopher Leonard is fittingly jejune as the son, Johanna Jowett gives his various paramours a soap opera gravity, and Victor Seyegh's melodramatic suavity as the son's nemesis fits nicely in the overall design.

But Price triumphs as Pridamant withdraws like the pitiful pettifogger he truly is. In that dazzling instant, we're reminded why theater matters.

Up in NoDa, the concept heaped on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is considerably more puzzling. In the new Off-Tryon Theatre Company production, Mykel Chambers' silken costumes transport us to a sensuous Arabia. But director John Hartness brings us abruptly home with a set design that half-frames the stage with a herd of sawhorses. The action is thus loosely fenced in like a parade or a highway construction zone.

With no space between the sawhorses, actors and actresses making their entrances must duck under the crossbars or grab hold and leap over. Onstage, much of their time is spent mounting the bars and walking their length as they deliver their lines, arms outspread like tightrope artists. One young maiden, who surely needs to get out more, takes extreme pleasure in straddling the bar.

All of these jungle gym shenanigans seem intended to dispel the tedium of the Bard's exposition and to offer us refreshment amid the thickets of antiquated verbiage along the way. If there's any thematic rationale to this Cirque du Shakespeare, it eludes me.

Compared with the Much Ado by NC Shakespeare back in August, where husband and wife also portrayed Benedick and Beatrice, exposition is perkier. Credibility is restored to the matched set of vainglorious eavesdropping scenes without undermining the comedy. We do seem to get ignition before Dogberry and his bumbling deputies come to the rescue. But the chemistry between Stan Peal and Laura Depta on Cullman Avenue doesn't quite equal the sparks I saw between Mark and Tess Kincaid up in High Point.

Depta needs to lighten her Beatrice, who often seems like a refugee from Taming of the Shrew. Peal is the more agreeable comedian here, surprisingly agile, though I'm wearying of the same ingratiating hand gestures he brings to every role.

Yes, there are some questionable choices, but if somebody's going to throw Much Ado at me for the umpteenth time, I'm inclined to applaud Hartness' audacity in casting women as Don Pedro and his henchman Borachio. Christy Basa is malignant enough as the Don and Andrea King brings more than the requisite defiance to his stooge. Don't care for the swishy Dogberry of Paul Goodson, his hair filled with glitter? Then you probably wouldn't venture into NoDa anyway.

Still, there's enough romance, heartbreak and luminous redemption between Claudio and Hero to bring tears when they're called for. Joseph Baez and Dana Childs are achingly sincere and ardent as the lovebirds -- beautifully counterbalancing the jousting of Beatrice and Benedick.

There's a special combo price if you see Ado or Illusion and bring your ticket stub to the other show. Do it.

The funky, artsy ambiance of the revamped Hart-Witzen Gallery seems to fit Moving Poets like a glove -- a warm glove when you stand near the overhead heater. Last week's Poets 6/15 was the company's third annual roundup of new work fusing dance, theater and multimedia. From the opening piece, Kit Kube's Seduced by the sensual nature of matter, right on through the reprise of Hardin Minor's exuberant Free the Artist, the lineup was adventurous and provocative.

Most gripping was Van Miller's Out There, Homeless in Charlotte, spotlighting a cavalcade of gritty monologues and observations collected by Miller and delivered by Gina Stewart, Kevin Campbell, Katherine Harrison and a sensational newcomer, Martin Wilkins. This was preceded by the most lyrical piece of the night, Karola Luttringhaus' Green, a simple futuristic trilogy danced by the fabulously lithe Alana Stroud -- on bungee cord, fabric and floor.

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