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Cosmic clockwatching 

Plus, Magic from the previous millennium

Not long after Robert Frost began pondering "our place among the infinities," the poet's New Hampshire neighbor, dramatist Thornton Wilder, began proselytizing the idea that science, evolution and cosmology are not at all inimical to poetry or spirituality. While the seeds planted in the dramatist's Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth haven't run amok on the American stage, occasional offshoots do appear.

Beginning with the creation of the universe, Craig Wright's The Pavilion clearly sports the earmarks of an Our Town descendent. Stronger than the evolutionary strain is the kinship between Wilder's famed Stage Manager and Wright's mercurial Narrator.

As we quickly discover in the simple-yet-stagey production currently at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, our narrator has those telltale divine and avuncular attributes, confirming that the distance between Grover's Corner and Pine City is less than cosmic. He conjures up the universe and keeps tabs on the time as the hours flit by at the PC High class of 1987's 20th anniversary soiree.

Between his providential and clockwatching stints, Wright's narrator morphs into all the reunited mid-life classmates we see -- except for our two protagonists, Peter and Kari. That gives Glenn Hutchinson multiple opportunities to widen his palette with boors, gossips and the self-important nobodies you expect to find in smalltown life.

Under Michael Simmons' direction, Hutchinson delivers with a confidence and verve we've rarely seen from him before. True, in ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, Hutchinson does upstage his co-stars. But that is very much to the point.

Twenty years ago, Kari was pregnant with Peter's child, but Peter yielded to his father's wishes and traveled off to college, abandoning her. He returns to Pine City filled with remorse, hoping to lure Kari away from her loveless marriage to a pro golfer. But Peter's one-time sweetheart has spent long years immured in a local bank vault, admitting customers to their private powwows with their safe deposit boxes.

Peter fumbles for the key to unlock their long-repressed intimacy as he brings flowers, candy and a song to the dance. Ironically, as Kari continues to resist Peter's protestations that growth and change are possible, change is fluttering all around her as the Narrator alights on each of his multiple cameos.

Maintaining an impregnable frostiness until intermission, newcomer Dana Ortt didn't convince me that Kari was worth the candy, the flowers or the having. Amends were made in Act 2 during the 11th-hour tête-à-têtes, when Simmons brought his leads downstage. A little more close-up action before intermission might have gone a long way.

There's a certain straight-shooting, down-to-earth scruffiness to Thom Tonetti's portrayal of Peter that won me over instantly. Tonetti's grip on my sympathies did loosen a couple of times, but he rose satisfyingly to his confrontation with the Narrator in the denouement.

So CAST can do soft, moody pieces that package meaty ruminations rather than shocking sensations. Simmons designs as deftly as he directs, so this is one classy walk down memory lane -- with a faint glimmer of the cosmic implications that walk by our side at every moment.

Five years after Omimeo Mime Theatre's Black Light Magic last appeared here, some of the ninja-like personnel behind the scenes has changed. But the wonder remains the same. Hardin Minor started us off last Saturday morning at ImaginOn with his trusty old struggles against an elastic clothesline and a floppy deck chair. Kids were hooting and laughing long before the blue fluorescents came on and Hardin's undies were magically lifted into the troposphere.

With segments inspired by Jacques Cousteau, Carmen Miranda, The Wizard of Oz and Disney's Fantasia, there's certainly no lack of variety in Black Magic. Or eye-popping color. Currency, relevance and hiptitude? Somebody needs to pinch Minor, Eddie Williams and the other members of Omimeo's creative team and invite them to enter the new millennium with the rest of us.

We test drove the show with two kids. Five-year-old Liam seemed enthralled from the start. In fact, the post-performance emergence of the black-clad "ninja" manipulators from behind the curtains was among his chief delights. His 11-year-old sib Rebecca wasn't quite as floored. No complaints, but she wouldn't put Magic in the same league as the Junie B. Jones she'd seen at the McColl Family Theatre five weeks earlier.

Technically, the show seemed even sharper than it had in 2001. Credit goes largely to the Wachovia Playhouse, the smaller of two ImaginOn venues, which simply outclasses the old Morehead Street fantasy palace when it comes to SFX capabilities.

After lunch, Sue and I shed the kiddies and sped out to the Regal Stonecrest, where we arrived 15 minutes early for the "Live at the Met" HD broadcast of Eugene Onegin. Not good enough to land the choicest of the general admission seats. We wound up behind the entranceway, toward the rear of the house -- next to a group that had arrived a half hour before we did.

From almost every standpoint, the performance justified the fanatic devotion of the cineplex audience. While Renee Fleming doesn't pass for 16 anymore, she has slimmed down noticeably since her last appearance in Charlotte and makes a comely Tatiana, the country lass who falls too hard for Eugene. She immersed herself in the rapturous passion that prods her to write her unguarded love letter -- and in the girlish giddiness of the joy that may soon be in her grasp.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky was more than the diva's match as Onegin -- aristocratic and arrogant as he enflamed and flouted Tatiana's love, feverishly desperate when he realized his mistake. The fiery concluding scene, where Tatiana -- now a poised princess -- rejects Eugene's adulterous advances, crackled with energy, urgency and anguish.

The spontaneous fireworks were precisely rehearsed by stage director Peter McClintock, so the TV cameras could progress from close-ups to super close-ups as the climactic confrontation boiled over. For these moments alone, no opera lover who wasn't at the Regal should miss the rebroadcast whenever and wherever it is shown.

Sporting his characteristic three-day beard, charismatic conductor Valery Gergiev purged Tchaikovsky's score of all sentimentality, propelling it with a sometimes brooding, sometimes neurotic edge. He also got on Ramon Vargas' case in the documentary intermission segment. Must have worked, since Vargas unleashed the best dramatic singing I've seen from him as Lenski, the poet tragically enmeshed in Onegin's toxic ennui. The rest of the cast is merely serviceable, and Michael Levine's spare set design is a Russia lazily derived from the recent Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof. The acting and singing of the principals -- and those close-ups -- obliterated those shortcomings.

One other thing. Judging from Sue's reaction, I'd say there's definitely a hunk factor in Hvorostovsky's appeal.

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