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Rex Rules 

Plus a hot production of Glengarry

You could almost call it an underground movement. Down in the catacombs of the Black Box studio at Children's Theatre, director Alan Poindexter has been polishing his approach to classical Greek theatre for the past five years. Poindexter has directed the company's Teen Ensemble in a series of tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides -- with the occasional side-trip into Ovid's Metamorphoses.

His affinity for the repertoire was fairly obvious even before he began attacking it head-on. Synthetic choruses, often wedded to ceremonial masks, first began cropping up in Poindexter concoctions more than a decade ago when he transformed C. S. Lewis' godly Aslan into a human trinity in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

So the current mainstage production of Oedipus Rex at Children's Theatre, with adults in all the key roles, isn't a random dip into Greek antiquity. Unlike the stab at Oedipus Tyrannos by the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival in 1992, the abbreviated version at the Morehead Street fantasy palace is the fruition of a fully developed style. From every standpoint -- including delivery of Aristotle's famed payload, catharsis -- the current effort outshines and out-powers the High Point production.

Start with the hubris (and the slight limp) of Christopher Salazar in the title role. Shirtless in a long jacket, he looks more like a contemporary superhero than an ancient Theban. He manhandles the blind old prophet Teiresias and bullies his brother-in-law/uncle Creon, equally mixing heroic zeal and aristocratic arrogance. Salazar is at least 15 years too young to be speaking credibly of his sons as men, but by the time that problem obtrudes into the dialogue, the tidal wave of Oedipus' catastrophe can sweep us through.

Two of Charlotte's best character actors, Barbi VanSchaick and Mark Sutton, feast on multiple roles. VanSchaick, in a bright blue gown, is regal as Oedipus' queen/mother, Jocasta, always a step ahead of our hero -- first in her confidence that Apollo's oracle is wrong, then in seeing the perverse web of fate enmeshing her royal family. But VanSchaick is more than the victim of the gods' malice. She also portrays the elderly shepherd who provides the final damning link in Oedipus' murder investigation -- and the messenger who reports the bloody consequences of the probe.

Sutton, in an oddly militaristic costume, is a starchy, cylindrical Creon. Nicely contrasted is Sutton's take on Creon's alleged co-conspirator, Teiresias. Here costume designer Johann Stegmeir swerves toward eccentricity, taking the seer's fluency in bird talk as a cue to depict him as a huge man-buzzard with an outsized right claw. Instead of making the soothsayer an object of fear, Sutton makes him by turns cowardly, cantankerous, defiant, and slightly comical.

Vito Abate, Cody Harding, and Jacobi Howard, in faintly oriental garb, serve ably as our chorus, executing Delia Neil's evocative choreography with statuesque grace. Real-life sibs, Abigail and Rebecca Moore, are used sparingly -- but tellingly -- as Rex's youngest kids. Sound designer Gary Sivak and lighting whiz Eric Winkenwerder, longtime Poindexter teammates, sustain Children's Theatre's high technical standards.

The production is recommended for ages 12 and up. Listening to the audible shockwaves that went through an audience of 12-year-olds last Saturday as Oedipus' crimes were predicted, I'd say that CT's recommendation should be closely heeded. The uproar that filled the house at the bloody denouement -- even before Poindexter tacked on his gory B-movie ending -- reaffirmed the power of Sophocles' tragedy to shock and move audiences more than 2400 years after it was first performed.

But you have to know what you're doing. Poindexter does.

Experience also counts up on Central Avenue where Glengarry Glen Ross begins its middle week. Victory Pictures and its Central Avenue Playhouse home have been renamed Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (or C.A.S.T.) by company founder Michael Simmons. The changes haven't affected the homely exterior of the venue at 1118 Clement Avenue, although there have been substantial improvements inside. Remodeling of the two performing spaces is a promising work-in-progress with new sections of side seating already installed in the bigger theater.

But let's cut to the action onstage. Simmons' high comfort level with the challenges of David Mamet's killer dialogue -- he has previously appeared locally in Oleanna (2000) and Speed-the-Plow (2003) -- is one of the key reasons why the current C.A.S.T. production clicks. Simmons is the key provocateur, Dave Moss, in a cutthroat battle for survival at a seedy real estate office where dog eats dog and the entire pack feeds ruthlessly on the unsuspecting consumer.

In a monthly contest for a Cadillac, Moss, already "on the board" as one of the sales leaders, seeks to sharpen his edge and fatten his wallet by stealing the prime leads from the office overnight. He enlists George Aaronow (Don McManus), the company sheepdog, to do his dirty work. At another booth in the same Chinese restaurant, Shelley Levene (Hugh Loomis) is whining that his sales slump is the result of the stale leads he's getting from the firm. His smug boss, John Williamson (George Cole), answers that the quality of those leads will improve if Levene's sales perk up -- but he's open to bribery.

Meanwhile, the king of the leader board, Richard Roma (Tony Wright), flashes his glib philosophy and sales technique as he smooth-talks a total stranger (Eric Johnson) at the bar. I'm saying "meanwhile" because director Robert Tolan, on loan from the Generations Theatre Group, cleverly slices and intercuts the three scenes of Act 1 so that now there are six or seven.

Counterbalancing Simmons' sliminess, Wright as the dapper, dignified, and fiercely driven Roma gives one of his most compelling performances yet. Loomis struggled briefly as the bellyaching Levene, but once he found his rhythm, the whole production started to cruise, despite flabby support.

Complications begin to fly in Act 2 after the office is burglarized. Amid Mamet's staccato dialogue, plot developments come quickly and we find ourselves suckered by the sudden twists. Worse than that, I found myself rooting for Wright as his Roma strove valiantly to keep his defrauded customer on the hook while fending off the police detective (Tony Pisciotto).

Language is notoriously foul in this deep descent into salesmanship, laced with scummy ethnic slurs. What's right and wrong becomes disturbingly visceral in this hot production of Glengarry. That's the fearsome, fiendish heart of Mamet's intent.

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