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Fang-tastic Voyage 

Also, a Charlotte Home Companion

No dinner problems plagued my sojourn at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre last week. With opening night at the opera fixed on Thursday and press night for Catholic scourging slotted for Wednesday, we had to yield – not unwillingly, I'll confess – to CAST's unique way with Fridays. Combined with the customary Transylvanian ghoulery of Dracula, Fridays are ordained as Fuel Pizza Night.

So we had a mouth-watering opportunity to devour mushrooms, peppers, olives, ground beef and melted mozzarella just minutes before witnessing the Count's bevy of she-vampires as they swarmed the stage, vamping and noshing on the hapless Jonathan Harker. Quite an animal sensation when your digestive juices are in motion.

Director/lighting designer Michael R. Simmons is certainly biting off a huge bloody chunk here, also starring in the title role. With son Robert having appeared in a Moving Poets incarnation of the Bram Stoker classic, the elder Simmons is certainly aware of the macabre story's sensuous possibilities.

These we see even in the bedchamber of Harker's fiancée, the chaste Mina Murray, as her close confidant, Lucy Westenra evinces some biblically abominated behavior long before the Count gets his teeth into her. We might see the little twists that Simmons injects along the way -- and in the dénouement -- as an insidiously feminist reading of the legend.

His head completely shaven, Simmons glides predatorily across the stage, baring his teeth with a tossing back of his head, holding those fangs visible for a couple of extra beats, then plunging into his prey. I've never seen even a remote resemblance between Simmons and Frank Langella, but it's there now in a signature role, albeit without Langella's massive size.

There are other fine performances, Hank West's foremost as the sniveling lunatic Renfield, a somnambulist West could play in his sleep. But there's no denying that the power of the vampire race is subtly magnified by the various hues of subjugation from Christy Edney as Lucy, Erin Fogle as Mina and Ryan Hice as Harker. Simmons also gets the most intensely controlled performance I've ever seen from Ted Delorme as the zealous Dr. Van Helsing.

Technically, there's much to admire from the whole design/sponsorship team. What often trips up stage adaptations is the difficulty of spanning the continents and the panorama of elegant, decrepit and subterranean settings in Stoker's vivid novel. All the fiendish obstacles aren't overcome, but Simmons audaciously tackles the problem. He uses both of CAST's stages, splitting the evening into three, and shuttling the audience back and forth during the intermissions.

Sundays offer a magic performance if you can't catch a slice on Fridays. Either way, it's worth the trip to 1118 Clement Avenue. Plenty of garlic hanging in the air no matter when you arrive.

For over 20 years, Garrison Keillor and his radio cronies have injected humor, wit, cracker barrel wisdom, music, and life into what otherwise would have been dead time between dinner and my weekly theater rendezvous. So there was an eerie off-balance sense of time-shifting as I found myself on I-77 yet again last Saturday evening.

Sue and I weren't listening to A Prairie Home Companion for once. More than two hours ahead of our usual timetable, we were on our way to Ovens Auditorium to witness a live broadcast. After hovering in the airwaves for decades -- like invisible companions -- Keillor & Co. were physically in Charlotte for the first time. We'd be seeing what we had only heard before, and the show would end at 8 p.m. -- exactly when my customary stage fare is scheduled to begin.

Dinner? Doesn't exactly work when you need to touch base at Will Call at 5:30.

Nor does my usual reviewing posture -- experiencing each show I critique with as few preconceptions as possible.

There would be moments in A Prairie Home Companion that I've literally experienced hundreds of times before. Keillor's song at the top of the first hour. The Guy's All-Star Shoe Band jamming on the "Powdermilk Biscuit Theme" at the bottom of the hour. Fred Newman's screwy sound effects workout. The spoken intros and outros to the "News from Lake Wobegon" and "The Adventures of Guy Noir, Private Eye."

All these are as exempt from criticism as I-77, and for the same reason. They're part of the landscape.

What intrigued me -- and perhaps also intrigued the horde of NPR faithful who snapped up all available seats at Ovens within minutes on the morning they went on sale -- was what lay behind the cloak of radio invisibility. What happens in the warm-up before Companion goes on the air -- and after Keillor signs off?

Yes, I wanted to know what Sue Scott, Tim Russell, and the Shoe Band looked like, what their chemistry was with their leader. To preserve such surprises, I resisted breaking the seal on my Prairie Home Companion DVD until after we returned home. But I was most curious to see how extensively, how pointedly, and how accurately Keillor and his writing team would train their liberal Minnesota perspective on the ripe target of Charlotte.

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