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The Wretched Get Angry 

Buying The Farm in style

If you think a drama called Mud might be a little messy, your theater radar is working well. The little we've seen before of Maria Irene Fornes' work here in Charlotte hardly begins to hint at the brutal power the Cuban-born playwright is capable of unleashing.

Fefu and Her Friends, presented three years ago in NoDa while Fornes was in residence at Davidson College, generated a sense of delight -- this was the notorious "play where you move from room to room."

But we're not in New England anymore in Mud, brilliantly mounted by The Farm Theatre in the bowels of Children's Theatre in the cozy Black Box studio. Although the actors' accents have an Appalachian twang, the degradation of the three central characters has a wild Third World flavor. When violence and resentment aren't boiling over, they seem to be restlessly prowling the wooden floor of Mae's humble cottage, ready to explode again at any moment.

Mae's frustrations and aspirations are the most intense. She works endlessly to pull herself out of the mud, and when she's not working, she's attending night school. Spare moments at home are spent with her schoolbook, savoring the rudiments of literacy and hoping to fill her empty, impoverished life with substance.

Be it ever so humble, no laudable goal can be easily reached when you're burdened with a creature such as Lloyd. Feverish, bloated, ornery, stinking, and illiterate, Lloyd considers it a good day when he can point to his fresh semen over the fireplace or report reaching orgasm with a pig. He can't quite grasp Mae's explanation of what math is, and he won't go to a doctor unless he's armed with an ax.

Fornes' toxic menage a trois is completed after Mae goes to the clinic on Lloyd's behalf and returns with literature on his illness. Unable to navigate the medical terminology, she turns to Henry, a conspicuously older man. While Henry isn't a playboy or a genius, he boasts refinements that Lloyd can't match: he reads, he bathes, and he wears shirts. Most of all, he brings two things to Mae's household that she's aching to be in contact with. Henry has a mind and a sense of self-worth.

Director Anthony Cerrato partners with Kim Ashton in defining the look and style of Fornes' grim portrait of the wretched of the earth. The weathered set, co-designed with Ashton, may be the finest ever stuffed into the Black Box. And Ashton's lighting design meshes beautifully with Cerrato's stylized framing of each scene.

By freezing before and after every scene, the actors etch a pictorial poetry into the drama that runs in fascinating parallel with the bestial degradation. The device also underscores the depressing stasis of the lives we're watching.

It would be difficult to overpraise the cast. Tara MacMullen earns our sympathy as Mae, who cares tenderly for two repellent men yet convincingly descends into barbarism -- with stunning suddenness. Nor will you forget your last muddy look at her.

Still, MacMullen is upstaged for much of the evening by the men who thwart her development. Matt Cosper constructs an elaborate physical vocabulary for Lloyd, the ignorant sick pigman, a shivery spectacle that's chilling to behold. Nursing such a hulk back to health is clearly a dangerous risk. George Gray, at first so pleasantly avuncular as Henry, deftly unveils his mean-spiritedness as he becomes established in the household.

That mean quality becomes even more pronounced when Henry becomes an invalid, triggering Mae's rage. A possible life of the mind flickers only briefly here. In Mae's stillborn soul, ethics, love, and passion never quite gain a toehold. Kinship is a force, but ultimately raw need rules.

We're told that Mud is the final Farm production for the foreseeable future. They're going out triumphantly.

This hasn't been the most lavish of seasons at CP Summer Theatre in terms of eye-popping production values, but I can't complain about the material, climaxing with the current West Side Story at panoramic Pease Auditorium. Boasting a book by Arthur Laurents and the musical collaboration between composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, West Side doesn't adapt as easily to a cut-rate set design as last month's Chicago.Maria's window and balcony in Andrew Liebchen's design are little more than a loading ramp, and the neutral space where the Jets and the Sharks gather to dance is pretty much the same as the outdoor battleground where they rumble. Emily Stephens' costume designs help us forget the drabness of the scenery, but it's Eddie Mabry who supplies the most consistent dazzle with his choreography.

Dancing is the chief strength of this cast, particularly the Shark gang members. Only Joseph J. Baez seems to have an inkling about how to radiate Puerto Rican fire when the music stops. We could use similar exuberance and menace from Jonathan Lovitz as Shark kingpin Bernardo and Conrad Ricamora as his lieutenant, Chino.

There's just enough asphalt jungle tension between the Sharks and the Jets for the chemistry between Tony and his immigrant love Maria to shine brightly in contrast. Credit director Tom Vance for never losing the strong emotional impact of the lovers' passion and misfortune. Marc Dalio, as Tony, brings little spontaneous fervor to "Something's Coming" and "Tonight" and only a trace of ecstasy to "Maria." But he lights up the night when he plays his scenes with Maria.

Or you might say he basks in the glow of Kelly Chapin Schmidt, who is a pure luminescence in her first leading role at CP. Her voice wells up with joy in her "Tonight" duet with Tony, sparkles with coquettish delight in the "I Feel Pretty" ensemble amid the bevy of Shark girls, and she hits every high note with effortless confidence. Schmidt even snarls powerfully, huddled over Tony's corpse.

The orchestra plays beautifully for conductor Craig Bove all evening long, and we get solid performances in two crucial supporting roles. Kelly Cusimano infuses lusty fire and disdainful bitterness into Anita, the doomed Bernardo's regal girlfriend, and Brandon Lee Upshaw gives a punkish edge to Tony's best buddy, Riff.

What this CP production does best is remind us just how great the book and score of West Side Story really are. We only need to look around to confirm how timeless and pertinent this story of love and bigotry still is. That realization hit me like a body blow.

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