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Shirley Valentine Cooks 

Koon brings more depth to role

Ten years after Rebecca Koon brought Shirley Valentine to Spirit Square for the first time, she and husband/director Steve Umberger are now giving us an anniversary encore. Downstairs at Duke Courtyard Playhouse, you can smell the potatoes frying in the kitchen as Koon confides Shirley's secrets to us -- and to the kitchen wall. While cooking up a subversive supper, Shirley is considering the notion of liberating herself from her servitude to Joe Bradshaw, her humdrum working class British husband.

Everything about Koon's rapprochement with the audience seems so much more natural and spontaneous this time around, flowing as easily as the cooking oil. And without sacrificing the humor in Willy Russell's "Comedy About Second Chances," Koon somehow makes Shirley's journey so much more profound and moving.

It's obvious that Umberger has helped deepen Koon's understanding of Shirley. But how much, I ask myself, comes from Umberger the director and how much from Umberger the husband?

Frying up those chips is the first small act of defiance on a path that ultimately leads Shirley to sunny Greece. Tonight, it seems, is Steak Night under Joe's domineering regime. On impulse, Shirley has fed the family dinner to a neighbor's long-suffering vegetarian dog.

Now if Russell were simply cooking up a domestic comedy, the payoff would be seeing dear Joe coming home wearily from work, sitting down at the dinner table, and tyrannically demanding his meal from a former slave who's now blissfully a continent away. But since this is a one-woman show, we never see Joe. We do see Shirley Bradshaw -- and we share her experience of rediscovering Shirley Valentine.

All of this is as touching as it is comical, because Shirley is so much like her neighbor's oppressed dog. That poor mutt has been force-fed a vegetarian diet all of its sorry life when it was born to eat meat. Shirley is stealing sips of wine when we first meet her in England. Later on the shore of a Grecian Isle, she's lapping it up.

Koon still draws copious laughter, particularly when she recounts her discovery of the clitoris and likens the path to orgasm to a trolley ride. But as she's showing us Shirley's evolution more feelingly, Koon also does finer work sketching the characters in her narrative. Shirley's classmate Marjorie Adelphi and her neighbor Gillian stand out in much bolder relief.

Most importantly, Koon has a keener, more poignant sense of the preciousness of the time we fritter away -- and a deeper delight in the time that remains. Not surprising from a fine actress with an extra decade on her odometer. Perhaps it just took me a decade to catch up with what was already there. Or maybe we've both grown wiser.

Entering its 26th season, North Carolina Shakespeare Festival ought to be one of the most firmly established, pre-eminent theater companies in the region. Instead, it's barely clinging to life.

Call up their marketing department. It's gone. The PR director was a casualty of the latest budget cuts, and longtime artistic director Louis Rackoff is serving out his final season.

Driving down Main Street in High Point on opening night of the 2002 festival, I was appalled. No proud banners straddle the boulevard. No festival flags flutter on the lampposts.

Inside the High Point Theatre, there's scant evidence that NCSF is the resident company. Behind the footlights, the company soldiers bravely on, visibly low on funding and manpower. Results were particularly disheartening at the premiere of Macbeth last Saturday night.

Randy McMullen's modernistic set design, studded with abstract sculpture and bordered by a narrow footbridge flanked by bare tree limbs, certainly evokes the macabre. The circle inside the footbridge serves nicely as the Weird Sisters' cauldron, thanks to Thomas Hase's fine lighting and an expertly deployed smoke machine.

But McMullen's abstraction adapts poorly to other demands of Shakespeare's action. None of the majesty of Macbeth's castle is simulated. At the haunted banquet after his coronation, the flimsy furnishings are hardly befitting a king -- and the food is more invisible than the ghost of Banquo. Hase has a beautiful lighting effect for Lady Macbeth's sleepwalk, but she has to thread her way along the footbridge, spoiling the scene.

None of this awkwardness seems to phase director Imre Goldstein. I've never seen a production of "The Scottish Tragedy" that seemed more like a plodding chain of soliloquies.

Much of the slow pacing and cheapjack production might be redeemed if the title role were excitingly portrayed. Unfortunately, Allan Edwards hits a low point in his distinguished NCSF tenure, giving us a whining, weak-kneed, and desperately bellowing Macbeth who is almost painful to endure. The valorous, cunning, and uxorious monarch is in total eclipse.

It's the massive, blockish Mark Kincaid who does the lion's share of the eclipsing as Banquo. His valorousness is self-evident, his chesty tenor voice booms authoritatively, and he has developed more nuance and humor in his acting during his eight seasons at NCSF. Likewise, David Adamson is more regal and dignified as King Duncan. Pity is, Adamson doubles as the comical porter moments after Duncan's dispatch, plus two more roles before evening's end.

Shaky at times, Kevin Bergen makes a pure and noble impression as Malcolm, the rightful heir. James FitzGerald upstages the young pup in the scene where the future king tests Macduff's integrity.

As the ambitious, seductive, treacherous Lady Macbeth, Mary Elizabeth Scallen has the most brilliant moments of the evening. Her exit might have been triumphant had her entrance remained unimpeded in the sleepwalking scene.

Treatment of the Weird Sisters is filled with surprises. They're bearded in their first encounter with Macbeth and Banquo and perversely lesbian by evening's end. The concept is unfocused, and the effect is hit-and-miss - something very typical of the production as a whole.

Much better is the new Much Ado About Nothing. As with Macbeth, we're transported away from the play's intended era without any discernible point or purpose. But the French countryside setting -- akin to the Fragonard painting that inspired the opening dance segment in Contact -- chimes well with the frivolity, the romance, and the unsuspected depths of Shakespeare's intricate tapestry.

Rackoff balances the silly and the solemn beautifully. Farcical elements of the spatting couple, Benedick and Beatrice, are somewhat overdone. Both of their vainglorious eavesdropping scenes blithely dispense with credibility. But Mark and Tess Kincaid capture their wit, their cynicism, and their powerful chemistry to perfection.

The chaste mutual adulation of Claudio and Hero, more carefully crafted, is pure joy -- sandwiched around a deep crisis that sorely tests the validity of love at first sight. Bergen and Jennifer Rogers are luminous as the impressionable innocents.

NCSF's ensemble jells from the moment Adamson enters after intermission intoning Constable Dogberry's priceless malapropisms. Until then, I found some rather dreary stretches in the exposition. Patience is definitely rewarded at this Much Ado. Rackoff has a clear idea that this comedy is about something -- something important -- and eventually, so do we.

While budgetary cutbacks and reduced-risk programming might enable NCSF to survive into 2003, I'd recommend stronger medicine for the company's $600,000 debt and its artistic malaise. Silva, Goldstein, and NCSF's future artistic team need to board a westbound plane and travel immediately to Ashland, Oregon -- and they need to drag High Point's city leaders along with them. By the scruff of the neck.

There, 14 miles north of the California border, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, they will find all they should be aspiring to. In the past 67 years, they've built three gorgeous theaters, none of which has ever housed a furniture convention. At the peak of their festival, when the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre swings into action and free concerts are presented before the evening shows, Oregon's festival offers nearly as many performances in a week as NCSF offers in a year.

The theater season up in Ashland lasts more than nine months, with 11 plays newly mounted every season compared with NCSF's three. Yet four hours away from Portland and San Francisco, with a state population less than half of ours, they've established a solid audience base that keeps coming back.

Needless to say, Ashland doesn't hide its Bard under a bushel. Festival flags line their Main Street. There's a festival store that sells a wide variety of books, apparel, and gift items that goes far beyond the bounds of the festival while remaining true to its spirit.

Goldstein and his cohorts could learn a thing or twelve at the Angus Bowmer Theatre where my wife and I recently saw Julius Caesar -- Shakespeare in modern dress done right, with clear point and purpose.

Of course, it all starts with community support. If NCSF can't find real support in High Point, perhaps they should look at the new facilities in Matthews and Davidson, or the venue soon to be completed at UNCC. Or maybe they should consider Asheville, an artsy town akin in spirit and name to Ashland.

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