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Fast-Forwarding Through the Bard 

More than a couple of young sparks fancy themselves in love in Twelfth Night. And since this is one of Shakespeare's more effervescent comedies, all sorts of mix-ups must be sorted out along the twisted obstacle course leading to the blissful exchange of bodily fluids. In a grand circle, objects of desire don't return the adoration beamed their way, preferring to admire people who prefer someone else. Adding kick to the rampant frustrations now on view at Off-Tryon Theatre in NoDa, there are multiple confusions about gender, delusions of grandeur, mean-spirited practical joking, and outright stupidity.Self-absorption and superficiality run riot in the current Chickspeare production. The only youth onstage who seems to have a clue about the nature of true love is the delightful Viola, who disguises herself as Duke Orsino's page, "Cesario," and causes most of the confusion. So devoted is she to the Duke that anything he wishes becomes her goal. So she carries his suit to the Countess Olivia, who predictably tosses aside her grief for her dead brother and falls desperately in love with Viola, er, Cesario.

No need to fret over the bewitched Countess. God's great comedy machine has sent down yet another set of twins for Shakespeare to expertly manipulate to everyone's bewilderment. As usual, Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are among the perplexed, neither suspecting that the other is alive and nearby.

Of course, the Chickspeare banditas compound the confusion with their customary all-female casting. Or it might be more accurate to say they give us the flip side of the confusion that prevailed in Shakespeare's day when acting troupes were all-male.

It would be prudent for director Joanna Gerdy and her fellow conspirators to stop there. Doesn't happen. Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch, looks about a decade younger than his niece, a minor annoyance. The script is slashed to the point where it runs about half the usual time, a major pain.

Chickspeare's aggressive fast-forwarding is most disruptive in the early scenes, where we're finding out who these people are and who loves whom. Some of the added shtick that diverts us from this task is quite enjoyable, and I think you'll like the design concept. After a thoughtfully added shipwreck scene to start things off, set designer Brian Ruggaber's pillars and scenic paintings evoke an Italian restaurant whose owner has more money than taste.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Sicilian cut lavished on their suits and hats by costumer Peter Smeal, Orsino and his entourage look like they might execute a Cosa Nostra hit on anyone opposing the Duke's romantic aspirations. Sir Toby, foolish enough to hope for the Countess's favor, seems to have stolen his outfit from the Mad Hatter.

We haven't seen CL's reigning Actress of the Year, Sheila Snow Proctor, doing one of her specialty pants roles in over a year. For the sybaritic Duke, Proctor goes to a chunkier look than usual, trading in the smirking irony of her past heroic Chickspeare sexploits for a bossy, barking boorishness. That approach meshes well with Joanna Gerdy's glum take on the grieving Countess -- followed by a raving restoration of her hormones.

Gerdy's solemnity as Olivia is not too distant from Nicia Carla Moore's sanctimoniousness as Malvolio. So it's not surprising that Gerdy, as director, chooses to be somewhat sympathetic toward the Puritan's humiliation. Hard not to be when Moore is giving Olivia's steward such a wonderfully starchy vanity.

We'd probably need considerably less shtick comedy if Kristen Foster, playing Viola, had been prodded toward a more steely masculinity -- or any masculinity at all -- masquerading as Cesario. She remains the earnest vortex of this production, amid the rapid swirl of narcissism. Meredith McBride, though afflicted with some of the prevailing giddiness, makes prudent choices portraying Viola's twin, Sebastian.

Most of the comedy licks were attempted by newcomers to the Chickspeare brood. Least impressive was Beth Pierce's blandly self-confident Sir Toby Belch. Emily Hewson was nearly as irritating as Aguecheek's mad outfit -- but not as detestable as some men I've seen as Sir Andrew.

The newbie I liked most was Meghan Lowther, looking like a cross between Chaplin and Mary Poppins, as Feste the clown. Though she participates in the humiliation of Malvolio, her harlequin warmth and grace seem to make her impervious to blame.

Most people at last Friday's Twelfth Night were more captivated by this 93-minute romp than I. With a less frenetic assault, the concept could mature into a fine wine. Let it breathe.

They do theater differently at The Farm, the brash new group that grows its own material and presents it in the strangest places. Last Saturday, while witnessing A Dream, or The Mirror, my wife and I were locked in a barbed-wire enclosure off North Davidson Street under a corrugated roof and told repeatedly, "This is life...this is life...this is life..."

Tara MacMullen and Matt Cosper were paired as Body and Mind in this episodic absurdist frolic. You knew we were headed for uncharted territory when you saw the young girl by the flipchart passing the time before the show reading the Oxford American Dictionary. During the 38-minute show, conceived and directed by Richard Newman, pages on the flipchart announced the names of the scenes. A healthy portion of them depicted the body asleep -- dreaming strange and various dreams. When the body was awake, it searched for love, pleasure, meaning, truth. Stuff like that.

Mind went on fewer expeditions of discovery, seemingly more in charge. In a climactic scene, Mind and Body went to a rock concert -- sort of a date! The enervated performance of the Beatles' raunchiest rocker was pure joy, nearly equaled by the innocuous party Mind/Body attended afterwards.

Farm will be sprouting up at Off-Tryon on July 11 for two weekends of Chekhov shorts. Then on August 1, they're opening An Experiment for the Theatre at the Boiling Point (on Graham Street), a twinbill including Strindberg's Miss Julie and Genet's The Maids.

If those are as tight as the Dream, I suggest you go.

Confronting the rank-and-file subscribers at CPCC Summer Theatre with the Grand Guignol of Jekyll and Hyde might be considered an overly impetuous enterprise. Mr. Edward Hyde, the evil side of Dr. Henry Jekyll, tends to dispatch his acquaintances with knives, pokers, and the occasional neck twist. Not a candidate for providing amusement to nursing home habitues.

As the carnage began to mount toward the end of Act I of this lurid Frank Wildhorn musical, I had this notion of descending into the orchestra pit. Perhaps musicians could reassure me that contingency plans were at-the-ready in case some of those pacemakers out in the house began to blow after intermission.

Despite persisting gasps and grumbles from a few surprised septuagenarians, the mismatch between Robert Louis Stevenson's shocker and the CP audience demographic was not as catastrophic as I feared. The more severe problems were on the production end.

Assembling his cast, director Tom Hollis complacently follows the time-tested CP formula. That works fairly well with the longtime veterans in the mix, whose involvement in the gorier aspects of this melodrama is only slightly anemic.

By comparison, the youth brigade in the lead roles often appeared totally clueless in the early going. As Jekyll, we need Jared Bradshaw to be more driven, desperate, dignified, and masculine -- a creature out of whom Hyde could credibly emerge. Emily Tello, as Jekyll's fiancee, could stand to be more regal in her bearing and more fervid in her loyalty. And as Jekyll's reclaimed waif -- and Hyde's dancehall honey -- Connie Renda needs to be coarser, more street-hardened.

We get significant help from costume designer Bob Croghan, whose costumes for the respectable folk are suffused with grace and elegance. The vinyl greatcoat for Hyde, with a couple of gratuitous gleaming buckles in back, fiendishly showcased its owner. Cully Long's grey and dingy set design gave the panoramic Pease Auditorium stage more depth and character than usual. In her scant opportunities to add sharper edges to ensemble scenes, choreographer Linda Booth delivered smartly.

Faced with female voices that couldn't scale the high notes, musical director Bill Congdon wouldn't budge from the uncomfortable orchestrations. Beware of unintelligible screeching. But the chief problem here is the lack of technical sparkle from lighting director Gary Sivak and tech director Richard Dills.

When Jekyll enters his lab, there's no portentous gleam to his chemicals, no eerie glow when Hyde emerges. Only the faintest wisp of oppressive fog is released as the bestial, vengeful monster prowls the streets, and there's no spinal crack when he twists the judge's head. By the time somebody decides to detonate something in Jekyll's lab, we're past the midpoint of Act II. Way too late. When Hyde breaks our hearts and cuts Lucy's throat, there isn't a single drop of blood on the knife blade after the deed is done.

Maybe Hollis & Co. were truly worried about overloading those pacemakers. Fortunately, some of those scruples seemed to evaporate during the course of last Thursday's performance. Bradshaw warmed up to Hyde, perhaps beginning to relish the sensation created by his atrocities. During the schizophrenic showstopper, "The Confrontation," where Jekyll and Hyde fight for supremacy, he reverted to Jekyll's voice twice when he was flourishing Hyde's hair. Glitches like that should disappear as Bradshaw becomes more comfortable in the role. He's already mastered the hair business to perfection.

And let's face it, this dancehall Lucy, attached to both Jekyll and Hyde, is somewhat schizoid herself. After intermission, we get to see more of the darker, tormented side. My assessment of Renda was all the better for that. She does strain for those high notes, but she gets there.

Corey Mitchell, Kevin Campbell, and Dana Alderman -- all of them fine character actors familiar to Charlotte audiences -- are among the august Board of Governors who vote down patronage to Jekyll's rash experiment. All of them bluster beautifully before Hyde bumps them off. Add the less frequently encountered Ken Dyess to that proud list. I wanted to knock him off myself. And watch out for Chris Gleim, who adds fire to a somewhat flaccid "Facade" and turns in more menacing work as the dancehall whoremaster.

Greg Glover as Jekyll's solicitor and Cary Kugler as his future father-in-law tarried somewhat in reaching melodramatic intensity, but they were quite fine when they did. There's plenty of room for the whole show to improve now that the company has test-driven the vehicle with subscribers.

There were plenty of side seats at Pease still unsold, and I suspect that as word spreads, many subscriber tickets will be handed off to children and grandchildren...and great grandchildren. With the right audience, prospects for this Jekyll to click might improve exponentially.

Even the cast might get it.

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