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Plethora of plays 

No shortage of theater this week

As the Royal Shakespeare Company finished its amazing promenades at Davidson College, the march of theater continued its winter surge in the Queen City. The Belk and the McGlohon hosted touring actors and Star Wars freaks, CP and Theatre Charlotte opened new homegrown fare, and two of the season's most intriguing productions lingered on at Duke Power Theatre and Actor's Theatre.

Let's begin with the holdovers, since we gave them such short shrift at the height of the British invasion -- and since they've outperformed all the ballyhooed PAC attractions.

The sweeter -- and fresher -- of the two is the BareBones Theatre Group production of Mr. Marmalade at Spirit Square. Have you ever agonized -- even a little -- over the cumulative harm inflicted on impressionable children by neglectful parents, pervasive immorality and the vast panorama of trashy media stretching from the evening news and primetime TV to gangsta rap and Internet porn?

Young playwright Noah Haidle has obviously contemplated the consequences. Filtered through his satiric sensibility, the outcomes are alternately horrifying and hilarious.

What gets our attention is that the full damage is crystallized in Haidle's 4-year-old heroine, Lucy. Beth Yost's immersion in the role begins before the lights go down at the Duke. Carrying a basket of sweets, she works the crowd, chatting up the audience as she distributes lollies, gum and such, acting the awkward child and the precocious emcee at the same time.

Perfect intro for the crazy, schizoid, frenzied action to follow. We can feel out the pathology as we meet Lucy's slatternly mom and then her babysitter (both portrayed by Meghan Lowther) -- plus a sampling of the men who whisk these gals off to the bedroom for a do-si-do (all Jonavan Adams).

So consider Mr. Marmalade as an imaginary friend who fills the void left by Lucy's absent father. He also seems to spew back all the media trash that Lucy has absorbed in her solitude. The remote control on the coffee table is her key to the urban contemporary jungle.

Outfitted with a smart phone, lines of cocaine and an attaché case filled with assorted sex toys, Mr. Marmalade is a nightmare come true. Robert Lee Simmons portrays him with a melodramatic élan that perfectly jibes with Yost's outsized energy and enthusiasm.

Haidle's logic is merciless as he whips these basic conceits to higher levels of outrageousness. At the core of Mr. M's decadence are his frequent absences -- mirroring the eternal absence of Lucy's real father. So this imaginary playmate has an imaginary majordomo, Bradley, an avatar of loyalty, timidity and black-and-blue abuse. In a servile bowler hat. Robert Haulbrook, wincing painfully through almost every sentence, is the essence of Bradley.

Nor are Lucy's symptoms peculiar to her. The neighbor boy who wishes to be her friend, Larry, is a suicidal 5-year-old with strange imaginary friends of his own. Jason Thomas Mayfield makes a fine debut in the role.

Toss in a bunch of popcorn, a flying prophylactic and some high-decibel yard equipment, and this is one rollicking evening you're likely to remember for a long, long time. Messy as all this is, director James Yost has liberated the laughs without obscuring the message.

Migrants, immigrants and lowlifes meet in fascinating fashion in Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, a drama that treads gracefully across racial lines in turn-of-the-century New York. Kim Watson Brooks is on her best form as Esther, a skilled seamstress who has reached the age of 35 without fulfilling two aching dreams: trying her hand at her own business and giving her hand to a worthy man.

Sidney Horton reminds us of his fine acting intelligence as George, the Panama Canal laborer/pen pal who lights up Esther's life. George and Esther marry at the end of Act 1 -- before spending any quality time together -- so we're entitled to have forebodings about the denouement lurking ahead.

With the sweetness that Joseph Klosek brings to Mr. Marks, the fabric merchant who can appreciate Esther's taste and craftsmanship, we can also wish that the adamantine barriers that existed between Chasidic Jews and African Americans could be magically bridged just once. Klosek's accent, a little more Russian than it should be, brings authentic flavoring to each of his spiels.

Donna Conrad's costume designs don't adequately depict the gulf between Esther's sophistication and George's grubbiness. But Hallie Gray's lighting design and Ann Marie Costa's stage direction help us to look inwardly where the meaning is.

Promising an intoxicating mix of wit and wickedness, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels succeeded in filling Belk Theater on opening night. Onstage, however, I saw more cliché than cleverness until intermission, more strained effort than confident finesse.

Irritation peaked when Laurence Jameson (Tom Hewitt), the suave Riviera swindler, scammed oil heiress Jolene Oakes (Paige Pardy) so thoroughly that he was in jeopardy of being hogtied and married in Oklahoma. To extricate himself, Laurence calls upon newfound acolyte Freddy Benson (D.B. Bonds) to impersonate his repellent brother, Ruprecht.

To establish her susceptibility to this transparent ruse, perpetrated in "All About Ruprecht," poor Jolene must reveal herself to be even stupider in "Oklahoma?" While all these monkeyshines make the next patsy, Christine Colgate (Laura Marie Duncan), seem more wholesome and credible, the price is too high.

Comedy is more surefooted when we reach the salsa-flavored "The More We Dance" and the absurd "Love Is My Legs." The second-half comeback, impacting with a couple of surprise twists at the end, elevates Dirty Rotten Scoundrels from abject bomb to solid mediocrity.

Theatre Charlotte's little lobby series continues to overachieve in its first season. With last week's Waiting for GODot, the folks on Queens Road proved that challenging, meaty material may not draw Scoundrels-sized box office, but it will draw capable actors to auditions.

Tim Ross multitasked admirably in this production, directing and co-starring as Didi. Christian Michelsen made a promising debut as the daily-whipped Gogo, and John Xenakis -- normally a liability onstage -- channeled his familiar mannerisms effectively into the obnoxious Pozzo. Fine cameos from John Wray as Pozzo's slave and Andrew Griner, Jr., as Godot's messenger boy.

OK, so I thought I remembered enough from seeing the originals on widescreen -- and on my Beta tapes -- to enjoy Charles Ross and his One-Man Star Wars Trilogy reduction at McGlohon last Saturday. How wrong I was! People who kept laughing at this repetitive mishmash for a whole hour may indeed hail from a long-ago faraway galaxy.

Two words if you're tempted to try Ross and his antics next time he calls. Rent Spaceballs.

CP's new production of Grease has some definite strong points. Aaron Mitchum as Kenickie and Brittany Morton as Marty dance stylishly in supporting roles, and Stuart Williams chips in with a couple of electrifying cameos as Johnny Casino and the Teen Angel.

Sadly, it's impossible to steer around everything else.

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