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Playfest Finds New Frontiers 

With more traditional fare offered by CP and innerVoices

Charlotte Rep's annual new play festival has taken on a new look in its 17th go-round, discarding the primal scenery and stage blocking of yore and venturing forth to new venues. Sporting a catchy new name, In-the-Works, Rep readings turned up at the Museum of the New South, the Mint Museum, the Light Factory, and Davidson College during its first week. An additional foray is scheduled at the Lesbian and Gay Center this Wednesday before In-the-Works concludes Thursday at its ancestral home, the Booth Playhouse.Unfortunately, few theatergoers followed Rep to their new frontiers but those who did were richly rewarded. Two polished scripts, by playwrights with national reputations, kicked off the festival. Then came a pair of works designed to showcase the talents of solo performers, Amanda McBroom and Charlotte's own John W. Love, Jr.

CL's official scorecard:

Absence - Wendy Hammond's new drama takes us across 50 years, from the time Peter Smith and his future bride Mary intertwine their destinies in a Harvard dormitory on a May afternoon in 1945. The couple's relationship becomes a finely crafted lens through which we watch the changes in America's character during the Cold War Era.

Tethering his career to his most charismatic college professor, "Dr. H" (clearly Henry Kissinger), Peter moves restlessly around the globe, absent from his wife for months at a time. All the while, Peter is devolving from a charmingly awkward and naive idealist into a cold-hearted pragmatist whose top-secret actions haunt him into old age.

Hammond's keen ear helps us to penetrate into the souls of her Mormon protagonists. But the top-secret wraps she applies to Peter end up shielding us from the playwright's bigger thematic messages until deep into Act 2. Hopefully, Hammond will find ways to pierce Peter's cover more frequently so his life will more meaningfully mirror our own. GRADE: A-

Calvary - It's easy to admire a script that does so many things so skillfully. James McLure takes us back to segregationist Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1950s as a drunkard lawyer, representing a doomed black man in a hopeless murder trial, rediscovers his principles and his backbone. White lawyer Ellis Tate takes on the case at the bidding of his longtime mistress, Willie Mae, who eventually reveals that the defendant is her kin.

As Ellis delves into his client's defense, he discovers that the political corruption in Jackson runs as deep as the moral decay. Deftly sustaining the excitement of his murder mystery, McLure keeps us engaged with Ellis' rejuvenation and the seismic change in his interracial relationship with Willie Mae.

Curiously, McLure lavishes the most care on resolving the lowlife linkage between the accused, Edgar Raeburn, and his sister Fallanna. Ellis and Willie Mae seem rushed offstage by comparison. But it's the clandestine affair between power-hungry prosecutor Slidell and the murder victim's patrician widow that cries out loudest for fuller development. Until that happens, McLure's dissection of Deep South bigotry and hypocrisy will remain tantalizingly incomplete. GRADE: B+

Will's Women - Amanda McBroom channeled her signature song, "The Rose," in a thrilling rush of inspiration back in the 70s. Now in the new millennium, she's cast herself in a one-woman musical where she's asked to write songs for the ancient Egyptian queen who went insane over a mesmerizing younger man. Inspiration doesn't come nearly as readily to fictionalized composer Katherine -- even though there are clear parallels between her disarrayed life and Cleopatra's.

So she turns to Shakespeare's gallery of heroines -- and villainesses -- for inspiration. The songs, co-written with Joel Silberman, are more to the point than, say, Cass Morgan's True Home from early in Rep's 2001-2002 season. I particularly admired Goneril's menopausal "The Bitch Is Out" and Ariel's "Hard to Be a Fairy Blues." Ballads were hit-and-miss, none more egregious than "Lost in his Hands" and its rancid empathy with Queen Gertrude.

The otherwise nicely crafted book nearly drops out midway through this 77-minute tuner, threatening to turn the evening into a concert. But McBroom is winsome in her panic and confusion, her heart sometimes as powerful as her wit. GRADE: B

The Succulent Walk - John W. Love Jr. has unlocked his inner queen in a funky romp that allows the flamboyant spellbinder to range hilariously from trailer park princess to grand opera diva. Love has become a less narcissistic griot in his regal monologues, retaining his racy pussy demon. But the connective storyline linking his gallery of queens badly needs fortification. And once our protagonist Wing conjures up his funky visions, the best of Love's creations should come back for encores instead of disappearing forever. GRADE: C+After a scintillating debut at their new Central Avenue Studio Theatre earlier this month, innerVoices Theatre Company has brought us Same Time, Next Year. Sad to say, this ugly duckling is in no way the equal of Speed-the-Plow.Bernard Slade's comedy is a pleasant bauble spanning a 25-year intimacy between Doris and George that ignites one weekend each year at a San Francisco hotel. Alan Nelson's direction -- at an exhausting gallop -- is somewhat better than his dreary, inelegant set design.

The biggest letdown is the cast. Kelly Carter can't keep up the hectic pace of Doris' chatter without sacrificing much of her flavor. Nor are there sufficient transformations in her character during the five-year intervals that separate the six scenes.

Ed Hill manages his dialogue more naturally, but he's even more static as George. Whereas Carter is forever changing wigs and hair colors, Hill goes to a spray can for a wisp of gray in the final scene. Otherwise, neither of the co-stars has given much serious thought to the aging process. It should appear deeper than a costume change.

CPCC Theatre is closing out its winter season with a lively mixture of comedy, malice, and the macabre, Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians. You'll find the odd novice or misfit in this community effort, but most of our suspects know what they're about -- and nobody on Indian Island is permitted to water down the British accent.Everything runs smoothly under Tom Hollis' deft direction. James Duke's classy set design should earn him a shot at some of CP's summer work, and Richard Moll's lighting responds alertly to all of Dame Christie's intricate plot twists.

Seasoned actors Chris Hicks, Elyse Williams, and Jorja Ursin are noticeably more melodramatic than usual. That permits the ever-noxious Craig Gaffney to appear unusually urbane as the take-charge Judge Wargrave.

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