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Gone With The Wassail 

A flurry of Yule plays

You won't find most of the usual Yuletide suspects and motifs in playwright Stan Peal's seasonal celebration at SouthEnd Performing Arts Center. No decorated Christmas trees, no chucklesome Santas, no eggnog, no materialists in sore need of Meaning In Their Lives, and no uplifting miracles. Not even an adorable child. Or a crutch!

Instead, A Mad, Mad Madrigal! takes us back to a medieval, pagan world populated by dancing peasant maidens and swashbuckling brigands. And because Peal is more dedicated to insanity than consistency or sanctity, we get anachronistic visits from the Scarlet Pimpernel (on leave from the French Revolution) and a Harley bike, plus wicked puns from Gone With the Wind and sudden references to Providence Road.

The Epic Arts Repertory tandem of Peal and wife Laura Depta have again overachieved on production values, transforming the SPAC venue into a warmly welcoming theater-in-the-round space with their circular zodiacal set design. Sitting around the dancers at our cabaret tables, we find ourselves flanked in turn by the performers.

The Holly King and Berry Queen reign over this realm, watching the humble skits presented for their amusement from a vantage point behind the audience. Or they do until the virile young Oak King challenges the doddering old Holly King to mortal combat shortly before intermission.

Foolishness and irreverence abound in this rollicking prank, but the primal mystery of the season is granted special pardon. Cast members who aren't dancing or singing contribute a primitive drumbeat from the wings.

Mummified in heavy makeup, Hank West's virtuoso snoring as the Holly King sets a high standard for this solstice silliness. But Paul Goodson's antiheroics as the Scarlet Pimpernel and James K. Flynn's boorishness as the Rabid Rockeater meet the challenge.

Christy Basa gives the Berry Queen all the fun-loving wantonness of a pagan Earth Mother. In multiple nutball identities, Julie Janorschke delivers some of the choicest fun to love. Jina Barragan brings a kinky edge to her dirt nibbler role, and Laura Reed sports the thickest brogue as the Ivory Sorceress.

Peal directs his own script meticulously, deftly blending ceremony and spontaneity. That spontaneity carries over nicely to Camille Dewing-Vallejo's musical direction and Annette Saunders' mix of peasant and exotic choreography. Mad Madrigal is part comedy, part New Age mystery and part Bohemian revel. Along the way, we get ourselves some donuts, pretzels and wassail. All in all, a feast.

If you haven't peeped into the Actor's Theatre production of The Santaland Diaries, you might wish to hustle. Tickets are going fast, and the added 10pm performance this Saturday may not be enough to handle the traffic.

The package is tightly wrapped and colorfully presented at Theatre Charlotte. As a David Sedaris fan, I headed to last Thursday night's performance at the Queens Road barn confident that I'd enjoy the script. But I was a little skeptical about actor Mark Scarboro's ability to adapt the offbeat Sedaris persona and humorously engage an audience working solo. Previously, Scarboro's most compelling work had been inward -- and mean.

So the production turned my expectations upside down. Scarboro makes an aptly unlikely and adorable elf. Julie Hutto's set delightfully complements Dennis Delamar's audacious stage direction, and Annie-Laurie Wheat's costume design is elfin perfection.

I just wanted more of the Sedaris descent into the hell of Macy's amid the Christmas rush. Sixty-one minutes didn't seem enough.

At a time when most companies are packaging merriment and sentiment to suit the season, Off-Tryon Theatre Company is bringing us one of the meatiest scripts of the year. Jonathan Tolins' Twilight of the Golds lifts the veneer of liberalism from a contemporary Jewish family, exposing differences in perspective that divide the generations while exploring issues of scientific research and genetic engineering that challenge us all.

Travis Osley and Stephanie Di Paolo deliver fine performances as twin siblings torn apart by a new element of choice for pregnant women. He's a gay Metropolitan Opera production designer shocked into reality when his twin sister seriously considers abortion -- because a newly developed test discloses a 90% probability that the boy will be gay. Walter and Phyllis Gold, David's seemingly empathetic parents, refuse to intervene in Suzanne's decision, proving to David that their love and approval for him are tainted.

Unfortunately, the supporting members of the cast fall painfully below Osley and DiPaolo's excellence, dragging the pace and diluting the flavor. Nor do director Bradley Moore and his players sweat the details. Members of the Chosen People are accustomed to onstage butchery of Yiddish and Hebrew, but opera lovers expect a Met employee to pronounce the names of Wagnerian operas and characters correctly.

Notwithstanding the uneven production, the Tolins Twilight is a fascinating, witty weave of ancient myth and contemporary reality, shrewdly observed and provocative.

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