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Five Complex Pieces 

Plus, a return to Narnia

Odd juxtapositions are obviously a way of life for Alan Ball. The Atlanta native's screenwriting debut, American Beauty, captured an armload of Oscars in 2000, before he created that oddest of Emmy-winning successes, HBO's "Six Feet Under" -- now RIP after a five-year run. If you're suffering withdrawal pains since the TV series wrapped back in August, or if you're a devout basic-cable subscriber secretly longing to know what all the shouting is about, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, now at Spirit Square through Oct. 22, is oddball enough to bear the Ball imprint.

The new BareBones Theatre Group production brings us upstairs to a posh Charlotte home (née Knoxville in Ball's 1993 script) as five bridesmaids are in strategic retreat from an expensive "candyass wedding" below. This canary-and-peach themed bedroom, so obsessively coordinated that the drapes and pillowcases are replicated in picture frames on the walls, is Meredith Marlow's room.

Meredith is the bride's younger sister. But first we see the bride's cousin Frances, destined to tell us at least 20 times that she's a Christian, yet assailed with pronounced lecherous and klepto urges. Oddities quickly accelerate as Frances dives under the bed with a pilfered bracelet and Meredith stomps into her room -- in black workboots, with a motorcycle jacket draped over her lavender bridesmaid's gown.

Obviously, there will be some disconnects between these similarly clad cousins that are as major as Meredith's clashes with the décor. They multiply as three other lavender refugees join the makeshift sorority. Trisha is the bride's estranged best friend, supposedly a "bad influence" and therefore idolized by Meredith. Georgeann has even better reasons to resent Tracy, since the groom is an old boyfriend that the bride snatched away.

Additional reasons why G-ann is toting a bottle and bawling her eye-shadow out? She's in a dead-end marriage, struggling with her weight, and still hung up on Tommy Valentine, who is chasing every skirt at the wedding except hers.

Tommy, we learn, has a history with more than one of the women in this crowd. He and Tracy are the verbal punching bags for the bridesmaids throughout the evening. Since this peach fantasia of a bedroom is a hand-me-down from her elder sister, Meredith is glad to join in on the Tracy bashing.

The groom's lesbian sister, Mindy, is the only bridesmaid we see who doesn't have an important lesson to learn at the nuptials of the "rich white Republican bitch." She does surprise us, however, with her ultra-normality while her sexuality serves as a crucible for both Meredith and her Christian cousin.

Anne Lambert directs at a pace that hints at the exhausting grind of a wedding reception you can't wait to end. Yet the women in this fine cast are never idle or dull, even when they're all arrayed before us in this claustrophobic setting.

Meghan Lowther as the seething Meredith and Donna Scott as the besotted Georgeann have the plumiest roles -- and neither disappoints. Likewise, Kristen Jones is ideally cast as Frances, evidenced in every puling religious affirmation and every blushing flutter of her demure eyelids.

The newer faces mesh well in this ensemble. Stefany Northcutt spans the discordant facets of Mindy confidently, most memorably when she trots out the lesbian's surprising charm school aptitude. Bringing an underplayed sophistication to the icy Trisha, Stacey Aswad helps to shape the dishy comedy when it begins coalescing late in Act 2.

That's when Alan Martin enters as the suave slickster, Griffin Lyle "Tripp" Davenport III, the true reason why the seasoned, cynical Trish has retreated into hiding. Amid the makeup table, the darling throw pillows and the rampant estrogen, Tripp brings us a welcome wisp of tension as he attempts to melt Trish's resistance.

Watching Tripp and Trish jostle and joust, we're diverted from some of the other plot strands and antagonisms that remain unresolved. So Ball delivers the satisfaction of closure without whisking us away from reality.

--

Coming in the wake of Alan Poindexter's magnificent first run at The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe back in 1992, Children's Theatre's previous production of C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew was a fairly stale mediocrity in 1993. With the technical weaponry of the new ImaginOn at his command -- and eager audiences filling the seats at McColl Family Theatre -- there is no stopping Poindexter this time around.

While Nephew isn't as fearsome or dazzling as last year's spectacular Lion, overall technical polish and execution show definite advances now that CT's design team has a full year under their belts at the new fantasy palace. Nor does it hurt that adult talent can predominate to a greater degree as we watch the evil machinations of the magician and the birth of Narnia.

Best of the Narnia newcomers is Duke Ernberger, whose reliable comic gifts make Uncle Andrew an evil magician out of cowardice and eccentricity. Wickeder still is Catherine Smith, reprising her role as Queen Jadis. Costumes by Johann Stegmeir for Her Majesty, Aslan, and the Narnia animals are as eye-popping as before, uplifting in their potency when matched with Delia Neil's joyous choreography.

Our child protagonists, Luke Pizatto as Digory and Hannah Hoyt as Polly, are up to the amazing high standard we've come to take for granted at Children's Theatre. Pizatto in the doleful, devoted title role works beautifully with Ernsberger and Smith, growing subtly yet surely during his rewarding adventure. Even the smallest toddlers were held firmly in this enchantment for its full 89 minutes.

--

At the start of the new Charlotte Symphony Orchestra season, UBS celebrated its sponsorship of CSO's 75th anniversary by handing out souvenir CDs featuring selections from other great American orchestras that the Swiss financial behemoth sponsors. Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and Houston are among the notables. Next time UBS anthologizes, press folk were told, Charlotte would likely join the fold.

If last Friday's Hungarian Rhapsody concert at Belk Theater was an apt indicator, the 2006-07 edition of the CSO is ready for their close-up. Brass, spearheaded by new acting principal trumpeter Lyle Steelman, sounded sharper, more robust in Liszt's Les Préludes. Energized by guest conductor Gregory Vajda and an unusually extroverted romp from Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the ensemble held a firm speed in Saint-Sains's Piano Concerto #2 that was nearly as magical as its presto marking.

The spell wasn't broken after intermission, itself a highlight with Thibaudet signing CDs in a natty beige serge jacket. CSO continued pounding the sonic contrasts of Messiaen's "Un Sourire" without compromise. New principal flutist Elizabeth Landon played in tandem with longtime clarinet principal Eugene Kavadlo in one sustained and heavenly birdsong passage, ascending together into piccolo territory -- all the more impressive at such soft volume.

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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