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State of the state 

Two shows do N.C. proud

I'm not sure whether the heavenly stars — along with earthly schedules — have ever before aligned in such a way that a performing arts critic, over the space of a single weekend, could take in two new productions from each of two professional companies bearing the name of the Old North State. Both slates were admirably balanced. Here at the Belk, NC Dance Theatre targeted the balletomanes with choreographies by Balanchine — interspersed with family-friendly matinees calculated to entice the small fry. Up in High Point, the NC Shakespeare Festival unfurled top-tier works from the Bard's tragedy and comedy inventories, aiming to please hardcore enthusiasts and win over new converts.

Even though most of the faces onstage and on pointe are relatively new, Shakespeare Festival and Dance Theatre are brimming with artistic vitality. But amid massive mortgage and loan failures, a roller coaster week on the stock market, and gasoline prices "dipping" under $4, both companies were gasping for audience at the performances I attended. As all good Americans know, bailouts are exclusively reserved for the crooked, the reckless and the greedy. Artists, homeowners and poor slobs counting on pensions are foredoomed, forsaken and foreclosed. That's why it's our duty to elect Republicans!

With cover girl Nicholle Rochelle and Alessandra Ball not answering roll call for the new season -- plus Mia Cunningham and Rebecca Carmazzi missing in action -- Traci Gilchrest had to step up and leap up to the brink of exhaustion in Timeless Ballets by Balanchine. Gilchrest was in prime Sugarplum Fairy mode as the prima ballerina in Raymonda Variations before letting her hair down -- but never her heels! -- in the title role of La Sonnambula. Only when she transitioned from Sleepwalker to the embodiment of the choleric humor, in Mr. B's The Four Temperaments, did Trace show a trace of fatigue, losing her balance briefly and surrendering an arm position in her final solo.

Although there was obviously great disruption among NCDT's female roster, it was never awkwardly manifested in Gilchrest's supporting casts. Among the newer dancers, Kara Wilkes stepped forward most brilliantly as the jealous Coquette of Sonnambula, which uses the music of Bellini's opera as loosely as the plot. Wilkes was among a bevy of new talents in the Raymonda, including Seia Rassenti, Sarah James and Sarah Hayes Watson. Carolina Rendon Okolova, a member of the satellite NCDT2 troupe, also landed one of the variations. On the strength of her work here -- and as the feckless Duck in the Peter and the Wolf matinee -- I expect this charmer will be joining the varsity before long.

Staging the three Balanchines, associate artistic director Patricia McBride had the luxury of spreading the workload more evenly among the men. She brought Addul Manzano to the forefront of the Raymonda, where he elegantly partnered Gilchrest in the pas de deux, soloed in the penultimate variation, and rejoined Her Traciness in the finale. David Ingram distinguished himself as the tragic hero of Sonnambula, the passionate Poet who dies for loving the Sleepwalker, though Randolph Ward upstaged him as the Harlequin in the divertissements. Ward had a similar triumph -- in a similar costume -- in the Family Magic matinee as the Cuckoo in Mark Diamond's fun-loving adaptation of Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals. Of course, nobody upstages the Swan, exquisitely done by Okolova on pointe.

But let me correct myself on Gilchrest. She wasn't on her toes all the time as the Sleepwalker. She walked quite normally in her final exit -- carrying the dead Poet.

Graham Smith does the heavy lifting in High Point, tackling the king of Shakespearean roles in King Lear, and reaching what is arguably the pinnacle of his acting career. It would certainly be the triumph of a lifetime if Smith & Co. were facing big crowds in a big city.

Lightening the load is a superb cast, chosen by guest director Steve Umberger. The villains -- Ellen McQueen as Goneril, Eleni Pappageorge as Regan, Matt Daniels as Edmund, and Brendan Marshall-Rashid as Cornwall -- are endowed with icy equipoise for Smith to aim verbal thunderbolts at, ricocheting them all back upon their impotent king with poisonous scorn. Soft vulnerability is at the surface of -- or not far beneath -- those characters that Lear lavishes his newfound empathy upon: David Foubert as Edgar, Emily Young as Cordelia and Henson Keys as the Fool.

Then of course, there are the characters who thematically echo Lear, replicating his journey and its lessons -- Allan Edwards as the too-easily deceived Gloucester, Michael Stewart Allen as the rashly intemperate Kent, and Raymond Chapman as the out-of-touch Albany. Even more deftly than his casting, Umberger has shortened the mammoth script to approximately 2.5 hours (not counting intermission), illuminating the intricate plot points rather than confusing us with omissions.

Smith calibrates Lear's evolution finely, never sacrificing spontaneity. Towering rages don't follow one another with wearying predictability. There is an especially textured differentiation of Lear's responses on the heath during the raging storm toward the disguised Edgar and his own Fool. Edgar is viewed through the lenses of curiosity and identification. But not in that order. At first, Lear deludes himself, assuming that only ingrate daughters could have brought "Poor Tom" so low. A manic, scientific detachment follows as he views Edgar as "elemental man." Two simple words uttered to his Fool when Lear is at his lowest, "Art cold?" are as impactful as anything that happens before the shattering finale.

An intriguing reshuffle of this fine company occurs if you can linger in Furnitureville long enough to behold their transformations in Much Ado About Nothing. McQueen and Foubert become the famously contentious Beatrice and Benedick while Young and Marshall-Rashid reappear as the couple of the near-tragic subplot, Hero and Claudio.

Smith is involved in a couple of fascinating juxtapositions. As Verges, he moves in comically imperfect lockstep with the bumbling Dogberry, played by Daniels -- who never appears together with Smith in Lear. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Smith's servant in Lear effects something of a role reversal. Henson Keys, the Fool in Lear, directs Ado.

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