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Giving Torture a Bad Name 

Grueling theater at its finest

Chains dangling down from overhead, a barbecue grill lurking in one corner of the cell, a tool chest standing in another -- you can tell pretty early in the Warehouse Theatre's presentation of Closet Land that our heroine isn't going to have a jolly time in prison. Through three humiliating and at times horrifying acts, she is the plaything of her cunning, sadistic interrogator.She has done nothing more subversive than write what she confesses to be innocuous children's stories. But in an oppressive totalitarian regime where truth is a tyrant's caprice and guilt is presumed on the basis of being arrested, innocuous stories can be seen as subliminal sedition.

The interrogator claims to be merely following orders, but it soon becomes apparent that he revels in his mission of obtaining a signed confession -- because it includes confusing, torturing, and defiling her.

No, there are easier dramas to watch than this intense adaptation of Rahda Bharadwaj's 1991 screenplay. At times, it was a curious relief that Kris Jordon's performance as the Woman was so one-dimensional and repetitious. But director Michael Simmons gets the best from Jordon exactly when her ordeal is at its worst, in the heat of her tormentor's sadistic assault.

And Mike Harris is certainly the most unpredictable of sadists as the interrogator. In a country that supposedly frowns on creativity, here is a jackboot who thinks way outside the box, playing both Good Cop and Bad Cop while his prisoner is blindfolded -- even impersonating a fellow prisoner who has endured the tortures to come, a fiendish characterization calculated to make your flesh crawl.

The Woman develops an implacable resistance under horrific conditions. But after awhile, I began wondering just what was so precious about the principle she was at such pains to uphold. I mean, if she hadn't conspired against this government or advocated its overthrow, she should have.

Hart-Witzen Gallery becomes a better theatrical space every month, despite being flanked by nightclub jamming and railroad rumbling. Simmons' stark lighting design puts the clicks and clunks of yesteryear emphatically to rest. Julie Landman's morgue-like set and Dean Kluesner's sound design similarly lift production level at H-W to new heights.

You may not agree right away as Warehouse Theatre prefaces their main attraction lockup with an adaptation of a Twilight Zone episode. I'd hate to give away the plot twist in this melodramatic tale of a young lady undergoing corrective surgery in a segregated country sometime in the future. Hopefully, the twist will be less predictable for you than it was for me. It may have been a full five minutes before I knew the outcome of this lame Rod Serling fable. Luckily, it only runs 18.

Casey Gogolin stars capably as the anxious Q-tip head. Melvyn Wallace, as the doctor with the agenda, has a bedside manner that's slightly more professional than a drunken panhandler's. If you're looking for a saving grace in this rancid appetizer, perhaps it's Dominic DeMichina's campy Serling impersonation.

Charlotte Rep's lyrically designed revival of M. Butterfly, the Puccini-with-a-twist that snagged the 1988 Tony Award for drama, ran nearly two hours and 50 minutes on opening night with intermission. Now that's some serious Hwang time.Fortunately, there's more than sufficient interest -- and multiple fascinating angles -- to playwright David Henry Hwang's retelling of a true-life story whose denouement unfolded in a two-day courtroom trial in May 1986. More than 20 years of crime, punishment, and exotic passion are distilled into the exquisite concentrate we're witnessing. So you may find yourself wanting to know more after this lavishly long Rep effort.

Two Parisians were sentenced to six-year jail terms when the notorious scandal hit the headlines. The Mata Hari of this curious couple was a star of the Peking Opera Company, funneling classified information to Communist China during the Vietnam War. The dupe was a respected French diplomat, M. Bouriscot, who becomes Ren Gallimard in Hwang's probing account.

The magnitude of the deceit practiced upon Bouriscot/Gallimard is of such Ripley's Believe It or Not proportions that a huge chunk of the hoodwinking has to be chalked up to self-delusion. Our Gallimard prefers to call it imagination. For over 20 years, Gallimard contends that he has "known, and been loved by . . . the Perfect Woman."

That perfection is hard-earned in this Rep co-production with Syracuse Stage. Michael Brown's simple red-and-black set design meshes beautifully with Lora LaVon's fine costumes and Dawn Chiang's chaste lighting. The crowning touch is added by movement specialist Anthony Salitino, working with a quartet of "Kurogo," who act as ceremonial stagehands and pre-show entertainment.

Movement is at the heart of Song Liling's allure, the key to the prima donna's amazing undercover success. J LaRue is equally arresting in Eastern and Western garb, mastering two distinctive voices in a beautifully gauged performance as the deceiving operatic vixen.

As Rene, Allen Fitzpatrick is nearly as perfect as the illusion that seduces him -- and an unexpected reminder that Butterfly emerged from its creative chrysalis less than five years after the wildly successful Amadeus won its Academy Award. This is an oversized, Salieri-like narration, with epic-scaled anguish -- one that seems to have been crafted for a Broadway-sized stage without being trimmed to the intimacy of Booth Playhouse.

A Gotham slickness mars the work of Peter Davies as Rene's diplomatic superior and PJ Sosko as our hero's college chum Marc. The milder comic embellishments of Sun Chee Chomet as a mousy Commie and as Puccini's Suzuki were much easier to swallow.

Of course, director Robert Moss is right to insist on heavy doses of artifice. It's what Gallimard, again and again, chooses over the truth in his reckless, ruinous worship of the imagination. What's so neat is that, in the end, Gallimard's devout self-delusion -- and his oddly sensuous journey to self-destruction -- is almost seductive. Delight follows delight in this classy production.

Up in NoDa, the Off-Tryon Theatre Company has found a new way to do Dracula. OTTC artistic director Glenn Griffin supplies a stage adaptation that restores elements of the Bram Stoker classic we rarely see. In Transylvania, Jonathan Harker's host is once again the old man who crawls out of windows and down the walls of his castle. The narrative is divvied up among the three men -- and the nearly possessed woman -- who conquer the vampire.And there's a fresh infusion of Edward Gorey artwork in the set design. So when the Count revels in the racket of the "children of the night," or Van Helsing spouts his ominous metaphysics, or Renfield cries out for her master, there's a wink of macabre comedy.

Problem is, with Griffin getting such powerful work from his cast, there's friction between the horror and the humor. Perhaps during Week Two of the run, Griffin the stage director will reconsider whether Sheila Snow as Renfield and Stan Peal as Van Helsing should also be tickling our funnybones. Better judged are the comic edges of Beth Pierce as Miss Lucy and Lee Thomas as her humdrum admirer. Bradley Moore is charismatically predatory as the Count, and Karen Doyle Martin is yummy as Harker's fiancee.

No adjustments seem to be needed on the business side. Drawn by the #1 brand name in vampires, the audience nearly filled the Cullman Avenue quonset last Friday. I'm not expecting a Halloween falloff.

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