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Family in a Jar 

Rep production is energetic and true-to-life

There's a fine true-to-life messiness about Charlotte Rep's latest comedy, Jar the Floor. Conversation among four generations of African American women careens unpredictably between trivialities and compelling issues. One minute on the day of Viola Dawkins' 90th birthday, we're caught up in the most difficult issues of parenting, relationships, career choices, and sexual identity. The next moment, we're watching Lola dancing around the living room -- or nonagenarian MaDear mowing down her granddaughter MayDee with her new electric wheelchair.

Family resentments buried for decades rise bubbling-hot to the surface in playwright Cheryl West's 1989 script and then suddenly duck below, cooled by a laugh, nudged aside by a more urgent issue, or replaced by another seething grudge. The friction is a key component of the family's warmth -- and essential to the fun we have watching. If the mothers and daughters readily accepted each other's choices and attitudes, this family wouldn't be nearly as screamingly hilarious. Or as pointedly real and relevant.

Spirited performances from a tight ensemble sharpen the impact and the pleasure. In his Rep debut, director Ted Sod trounces the difficulty of preserving family intimacy and chemistry among four markedly distinctive women.

Venida Evans portrays the eldest, usually called MaDear, with a keen relish for her childish sense of mischief. Layered on is a nicely modulated combination of timidity toward her caretaker granddaughter, MayDee, and bitterness over her exile from her native Dixie.

Well-established in the realms of musical comedy and opera, Tony Award winner Gretha Boston makes a smashing debut as MaDear's daughter Lola. Lola has risen from the depths of housecleaning to financial independence by the force of her determined personality and the resources of an extended string of studs. She has selected her men profitably but not always wisely, so her daughter MayDee is both beneficiary and victim of Lola's escapades. But the earthy Lola isn't the type who agonizes or looks back. She's abrasively opinionated, incorrigibly candid, and Boston has a ball with her.

By contrast, MayDee is so grammatically correct and professionally proper that, for the longest time, I wondered whether the ballyhooed Suzzanne Douglas (from School of Rock and TV's The Parent "Hood) would be able to bring much of her mettle to the role. When MayDee isn't straining to keep her grandmother in line -- or playing fretful disapproving mother to her free-spirited lesbian daughter -- she's stressing over whether she'll be tenured at her university. We're deep into Act 2 before MayDee's conflicts with her mom and her daughter Vennie get down-and-dirty. No doubt about it, Douglas is impressive in those obligatory skirmishes.

So is Charlotte's own Kim Watson as the bald and multi-pierced Vennie. While Vennie is clearly the most adventurous and tolerant -- as well as rebellious and immature -- of MaDear's descendants. Watson encompasses all these dimensions, and there isn't the slightest lurch when she shifts gears.

Helping to fuel the family conflicts is Vennie's new girlfriend, Raisa Krimintz. She's a fine stew in her own right: lesbian, Jewish, chemotherapy patient, sporting an unreplaced boob lost to mastectomy. Elizabeth Wells Berkes captures her hard-won joie de vivre beautifully.

With so many interesting characters, conflicts, and back stories, Jar the Floor never really tells you where it's headed. West doesn't always handle her characters' comings and goings artfully, and she far exceeds the credible quota of earthshaking revelations sparking through a family in a single day.

But if you're fascinated by the organism of a family, you'll be delighted by nearly everything West has jammed into her Jar -- and the gusto with which this Rep production serves it up. Rebecca Cairns' costumes add spicy definition to each of these women, and Anna Sartin's spacious set, woodsy yet uncompromisingly modern, bestows an added dignity upon everything we see. Plus a wink or two of additional comedy.

With Mark Delavan booked for the title role in Verdi's Nabucco, Opera Carolina's new season figured to begin with a rousing lift-off. What I hadn't foreseen was how often the mighty Met baritone would be upstaged. Rebecca Copley sizzled as the jealous, bloodthirsty Abigaille, perhaps a bit too volatile vocally and wobbly in her first-act entrance but commanding in the final three acts. As Ismael, the object of Abigaille's unrequited lust, Jose Luis Duval excelled from his very first note. He needed to, since this tenor role is among the scrawniest in the repertoire for romantic leads.

And of course, both orchestra and chorus tend to shunt Nabucco aside for attention in this early Verdi work. James Meena coaxed fine harmony and heraldry from his band of Charlotte Symphony renegades, and Mark Tysinger shaped noble sonic monuments from the OC chorus of Hebrews. The anthemic "Va, pensiero" was worthy of an encore.

Delavan burst onto the Holy Temple in Jerusalem without quite the force and charisma we'd seen in his portrayal of the Dutchman at Spoleto last year. But as Nabucco's pride and conceit spiraled into the hubristic climax when the Babylonian king declares himself god, Delavan rose to the occasion. Then in his madness, he became twisted, pitiful, yet still potentially dangerous. His contrition and ultimate triumph were equally effective.

The stately columns and pagan statuary of Claude Girard's set design provided exactly the right frame for the tapestry of brute Babylonians and god-fearing Israelites. No surprises in the locale or willful changes in the era, Jehovah be praised.

Meanwhile up in NoDa, Moving Poets Theatre of Dance has revamped its retelling of the Faust legend at the new Hart-Witzen Gallery. Thanks largely to Tom Constanten's fresh score, A Devil's Dance strikes much closer to the core of Goethe's classic. Set design by Kit Kube and the ready-for-Halloween lighting by Eric Winkenwerder also contribute substantially to the upgrade.

The ending remains a bit murky in terms of Margrete's salvation and Faust's redemption, but for pure visual appeal and visceral excitement, A Devil's Dance moves close to the head of the class among Moving Poets' quirky works. Not quite X-rated, but very hot.

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