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Euro Peons and the Devil 

And Belk Theater sends out an SOS

There's no lack of salient plot points in Playing With Fire. In just under 77 minutes, we witness a coup d'etat, a resurrection, and a pact with the devil. John Clifford's medieval morality tale, currently receiving its US premiere at Off-Tryon Theatre, also wraps itself around multiple major themes: our millennial aspirations, our base materialism, the eternal plight of the poor, and the impotence of kings.

Clifford writes with an expressionistic European flair that excites audiences and energizes actors. There's no doubting Off-Tryon's belief in and commitment to the work. Chuck Stowe's set design for the 14th Century catacomb is among the most impressive I've seen at the Cullman Avenue quonset, Jimmy Cartee's costumes have an artless naivete that complements the edgy dialogue, and John G. Hartness ably negotiates the surreal and supernatural elements of the script with his lighting design.

Unfortunately, in bringing this provocative script across the pond from the UK, director Chris O'Neill doesn't conjure up much magic in casting the role of Clifford's protagonist, Justina, or her hapless husband Fernando. It's the intrepid alchemist Justina, questing after the elusive philosopher's stone, who drives the action.

The legendary stone has two intriguing attributes. It can act as a catalyst in changing lead into gold, and it has the power to spiritually regenerate mankind. Fernando is mostly interested in cashing in on the gold. Justina, however, envisions herself eradicating the poverty that surrounds her and sprinkling that magical regeneration dust through all sectors of society.

Or she does until the Devil scrambles out of her oven. El Diablo can offer Justina anything she wants -- for the usual price. Armed with her good intentions, the altruistic alchemist thinks she's getting the best of the bargain. Soon the fabled stone is in her hands, and the King of France's constable is knocking on her door. But Justina's millennium doesn't arrive on schedule. She gains some painful insights into her true character and some punishing lessons on the perils of getting what you wish for.

What all this means, or does, to Justina might be more evident if Amanda NiCastro penetrated closer to her core. Director O'Neill has her zipping through her lines at a dizzying pace; consequently, NiCastro flattens the arc of the alchemist's development and steamrolls Justina's spontaneity.

Jimmy Cartee's rendition of Fernando is even less human, riddled with wide-eyed overacting. Lightning quick pacing is better judged when applied to the Beggar, consistently irritating in Iesha Hoffman's sprightly portrayal. We get a slower, more mesmerizing tempo for the Devil, played with a squinty cynicism by John Hartness, but I would have liked a pinch of charismatic menace, more snaky grace, and some diabolical glee.

Keep faith with Clifford's parable and you'll eventually be rewarded with two fine performances. First Christy Basa comes calling as the king's Constable, swaggering with all the arrogance of a warrior commander who wields the true power of the kingdom. Then comes the outrageously fragile King, courtesy of Hank West; this weakling charmingly delivers some of Clifford's choicest lessons in realpolitik.

Although he's unsparing toward idealists, it's obvious that this playwright's heart is fervently with them. Clifford is telling us that there are no shortcuts and no magic formulas to changing the world. Aware of the challenges that face us -- and our deeply ingrained corruption -- he hasn't given up or turned totally sour on the world. Instead, Clifford seems ready to roll up his sleeves.

You know you're in a pop music universe when an ardent lover's response to rejection and disappointment is to send out a prolonged S.O.S. Last week at Belk Theater, with the return of Mamma Mia! we were plunged into an ocean of ABBA, rocked by wave after wave of hypnotic pop. Songs whose titles could be guessed by the phrase most-often repeated in the lyric -- "Dancing Queen," "The Winner Takes It All," and "Voulez-Vous" -- were coupled with songs whose titles were repetitions. These linguistic drumbeats included "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do," "Honey, Honey," "Money, Money, Money," and "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!"OK! OK! OK! After more than two-and-a-half hours of this sugary pop pelting, I emerged with a groggy smile on my face, regaining my land legs and custody of my mind.

This cotton candy entertainment was as easy to ingest as the first go-round at Ovens nearly two years ago, despite the fact that the cast wasn't nearly as good vocally. Catherine Johnson's book still displays its old-time craftsmanship, knitting together the tunes of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus as expertly as most similar exploits on behalf of Cole Porter or George Gershwin. Nor has the appeal of Phyllida Lloyd's direction withered, reaching fluffy peaks of zaniness with the help of Mark Thompson's costuming and Anthony Van Laast's mad choreography. The dancing divers flopping around in snorkel gear are still a hoot.

Understudy Betsy Morgan was barely adequate filling in as Sophie Sheridan, the bride-to-be who turns her wedding into an identity crisis for both herself and her mom. But the guys who played Sophie's three possible dads weren't exactly electrifying, either.

Though she couldn't levitate all of her lame ballads, Lauren Mufson as Sophie's mom was by far the best vocalist onstage. The wedding storyline reunites this Donna on a tiny Greek island with three former boyfriends plus two girlfriends who committed spandex with her in an Abba-like trio back in the 70s. Lori Haley Fox and E. Faye Butler added little vocal voltage in completing the trio, but they hugely expanded their shtick.

So the ingredients -- though proportioned differently -- were the same as before. A gentle mockery is aimed at the soft glitter rock that ABBA brought to perfection, culminating in a mild critique of the freewheeling lifestyle it emerged from. Meanwhile 22 songs, followed by three carefully calculated encores, are seducing us all over again.

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