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Evangelical retriever 

Plus, perpetually pouting at Twelfth Night

Danger stalks those who worship their cuddly canines. Repeated viewings of A.R. Gurney's Sylvia, the comedy whose title mongrel almost breaks up a Manhattan marriage, planted this suspicion. My first encounter with Lee Blessing's Chesapeake last week -- along with flashbacks to Wizard of Oz and Walking Across Egypt -- offered further evidence of the disease. Authors and playwrights who fall prey to doggie adoration see a weakening of their immune systems.

Sentimentality, tolerance, forgiveness and Christian charity are the inevitable afflictions of these poochophiles. Happy endings skulk in the shadows. There's no place like home!

I'll have to admit a damning degree of susceptibility to all the barking oeuvre I've cited, including the Blessing, premiered at Duke Power Theatre by North Carolina Stage Company and starring its artistic director Charles McIver. In Act 1 of this one-man show, he was Kerr, a struggling performance artist who sees confrontation as the lifeblood of his art and jail time as its supreme justification.

Kerr is the bete noire of a rabid Southern politician, Thurm Pooley, who crusades against the very existence of the NEA and takes particular umbrage at Kerr's public readings of the Song of Songs. Audience participation at these performances, Kerr delights in informing us, turns the biblical recitation into a striptease ritual. Kerr's artful jabs against the bourgeoisie, in fact, supply the fuel that catapults Pooley to success in his bid for the U.S. Senate.

Retaliating against his senatorial nemesis, Kerr decides to kidnap Pooley's pooch, the pet who sweetens all of Pooley's campaign ads and photo ops. But the dognapping ends catastrophically as both Kerr and the Chesapeake Bay retriever plunge spectacularly to their deaths.

In Act 2 of this fanciful tale, Kerr learns that encores do lurk behind "the asbestos curtain of death" when he's reincarnated as Pooley's replacement retriever, Lucky the Second. It's here where McIver, directed by spouse Angie Flynn-McIver, transcended himself. Once Kerr has turned his predicament, imprisoned in a dog's body, into an opportunity to turn Pooley's value system upside down, he finds himself immersed in a great internal struggle: The human, vengeful Kerr is slowly overtaken by Lucky's loyal generous heart.

The onset of open-hearted bestiality is hilarious before the parable of retribution takes an unexpected twist. Here at last the animal/human drama replaces the comedy of duping a hayseed evangelical, which supplanted the polemics of arts advocacy. So McIver and Chesapeake got better and better as Blessing ventured further and further away from his predictable preaching-to-the-choir exposition of arts vs. demagoguery.

As I busily caught up with Charlotte theater after a two-week absence, Chesapeake was the second of five shows I saw on consecutive nights. Opening night last Wednesday seemed a little sparsely attended when you consider how emphatically NC Stage had proven itself in its two previous visits to Spirit Square, with It's a Wonderful Life and Moonlight and Magnolias. Asheville-based McIver & Co. are promising to deliver more goodies to Uptown in 2008-09. Once they announce the lineup and schedule, I'd advise theater-holics to gorge on subscriptions.

Attending Shakespeare Carolina's Twelfth Night on opening night last Thursday didn't turn out to be a great idea. Throngs of bardolators did not pack the seats at Theatre Charlotte, and few things seemed to be missing onstage. Foremost, the food of love -- music -- needed more play, along with a sense of fun and excitement. When Tom Ollis as the lovably meddlesome lout Sir Toby Belch and Colby Davis as Feste drifted away from view, the production usually deflated in the early going.

Maybe director John G. Hartness cut too much exposition for the convoluted plot to take root properly. Or maybe the manicuring diverted too much of his attention away from Malvolio, who often sets the tone. Censorious, absurdly narcissistic, sensitive, presumptuous and moral, a sharply interpreted Malvolio can lift this comedy out of the ordinary. Olivia's puritanical steward amuses us when we first encounter him because his professed austerity contrasts so radically with his outrageous vanity. Yet Shakespeare ultimately delivers an antagonist who is more sinned against than sinning. So it isn't at all perverse when a director decrees that, at certain angles, Twelfth Night should be viewed equally as a problem play and a comedy.

Perpetually pouting, Nick Iammatteo gives us neither the crusty hauteur of a smug steward we can laugh at nor the compellingly humiliated victim we can pity. When his Malvolio dares to appear before Olivia in the scene that ruins him, there's neither swagger in his "cross-gartered" entrance nor ardor as he approaches the countess he believes to be in love with him.

Perhaps Hartness and Iammatteo can decide between them what the soul of Malvolio is before this production resumes its run at the Queens Road barn on July 16. Meanwhile Carrie Anne Hunt seems comfy as the cross-dressing Viola, her best Shakespearean outing since her luminous Miranda, nicely paired with newcomer Joe Mertes as her long-lost twin brother Sebastian. Iesha Hoffman is at her best when she's pursuing the disguised Viola, but Jimmy Cartee hasn't bothered to make Duke Orsino worthy of Viola's secret adoration.

Best of the rest is Jonathan Ewart in the bit role of Sebastian's friend, Antonio. Ewart was born to play Malvolio ñ but perhaps he rejected that greatness when it was thrust upon him.

After a stretch of 44 shows in 38 days -- in Charleston, Denver, D.C., and Charlotte -- I'll relax a little bit this week. Before the holiday, I'll do the kiddie/mystery tandem at CP, Aladdin and Dial M. Then I hope the fireworks will continue after the Fourth with Queen City's heavily publicized Side Show at McGlohon. After all that laying about, Sue and I hit the road again for Greensboro, where Bloody Blackbeard, touted as Triad Stage's biggest production ever, concludes its run next Sunday.

No reason for a quick U-turn. While Sue catches up with her grandkids, I'll probably peep in on the Eastern Music Festival for a few days. Plenty of high-octane pops, jazz, orchestral or chamber music action every day through Aug. 2. Last year's festival made me a believer.

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