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Things Fall Apart, Take Two 

Sharp satire still resonates

Thirty-six years ago, when satiric cartoonist Jules Feiffer cast his jaundiced eye on his native New York, envisioning a city engulfed in anarchy and chaos, he wasn't prophesying a civilization besieged by suicidal terrorists, shoe bombers and madmen who could whip up bombs from fertilizer. No, his 1967 Obie Award winner, Little Murders, conjured up a more Yeatsian disintegration -- things falling apart from within, undermined by apathy, ignorance, insensitivity and prejudice.As you'll see in the current Stage One/BareBones Theatre co-production, there are also fiery harangues tossed into Feiffer's corrosive comical stew. Finally when the sickness festering in the Newquist household reaches full blossom, beyond paranoia, a new rifle is unveiled and family members take turns at their window targeting strangers in the crosshairs, learning to shoot by killing.

Seeing is a large part of the pleasure in this production. George Gray has designed an impressive set for the first fully staged production at the new SouthEnd Performing Arts Center, one that fills the funky stage yet resonates with the elder Newquists' claustrophobic closed-mindedness. Gray also directs more busily than usual, a huge plus in this neurotic rat hole.

But on opening night, all cast members weren't equally acclimated to Gotham. Annette Gill has done a tugboat load of Neil Simon and Arthur Miller scripts, so she's right at home as the ditzy Newquist matriarch, Marjorie. Can't say I remember Marshall Case immersing himself in Brooklynese before, but his irate take on papa Carol has the right Archie Bunker spice.

Jennifer Foster makes a pleasing debut as the tall, eager-to-please daughter, and Matthew Corbett has some fine moments as her mountainous, taciturn fiance. A few more performances should boost her confidence and help their chemistry. Who knows, given a few more fly-bys, Travis Creston might even home in on the Tri-State area. Last Wednesday, the veteran Tarradiddle Player's accent was tracing grand circles ranging from New Orleans to London.

With bullets flying through streets and windows, it's hard to look far into the future in the world of Little Murders. In fact, with all the Con Edison blackouts plaguing Feiffer's New York, even the present is elusive.

Up in NoDa last Saturday, the blackouts during "Master Harold"... and the Boys came courtesy of Duke Power -- and they weren't fictional. There is a rainstorm written into the start of the drama, but I'm sure the cast will be more comfortable onstage without the blinking embellishments.Company manager John Hartness has come up with an exciting concept in directing Athol Fugard's most famous work. He has taken the intensely autobiographical -- and confessional -- piece and transported it from apartheid Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950 to segregationist Charleston, South Carolina, in 1958. A few geographic and historical substitutions are all that's necessary.

Crossing the Atlantic, Willie Malopo becomes Willie Matthews in the Western version of the St. George's Park Tea Room. He also gains a smidge of backbone and maturity in Bobby Tyson's beautifully gauged performance. John Price grows to oracular power as Sam Semela, the waiter/ballroom dance teacher whom Fugard regarded as the most significant friend of his boyhood.

But all too often, Price's delivery and cue pickup are much too halting or sluggish, damaging his momentum and slowing down the action. Nor does it help that Price can't look down at Hally during their climactic confrontation just moments before Willie dismisses him as a "little boy." Worse, Colby Pressly is no more Southern than he is little as Hally. Sort of undermines the whole concept when "Master" can't manage the slightest hint of a drawl.

No doubt about it, though, the kid can spit. When the final catastrophe is delivered with such malicious gusto, the effect is stunning.

Back for a return engagement at Afro-Am Cultural Center after winning CL's Best Original Play award, Negras Eros has put on some weight since its workshop production last October. April Jones, our newly crowned Theaterperson of the Year, has expanded her "Miss Brown Paper Bag" sketch, giving Sidney Horton a juicy cameo as pageant emcee. Profane and profound, there's a lot to savor in this sweet suite. Say Amen!

While some local theater groups were chastened by Charlotte's notorious Angels in America controversy, Opera Carolina has been emboldened in recent years, presenting The Crucible by Robert Ward and Susannah by Carlisle Floyd. Now, for a three-performance run beginning this Thursday, comes a lavish production of Floyd's latest opera, Cold Sassy Tree, co-produced with the Houston Grand Opera, where the work premiered on April 14, 2000. In an unprecedented move, OC gave away handsomely printed copies of Floyd's complete libretto, supplemented with a biographical sketch of the composer and a lengthy interview. They've reached out to book clubs, encouraging them to schedule Olive Ann Burns's fictional chronicle of Cold Sassy, GA, and offering previews of the opera -- plus discounts -- to those that do.

Comparing Floyd's libretto with Burn's novel, you'll find that the composer has deftly condensed the exposition of the 391-page best seller. But he hasn't dulled the point. On the contrary, Burns's novel took Floyd back to the "small town dynamics" he learned first-hand in Latta, SC, where he was born, and numerous other Southern towns where he grew up.

The son of a Methodist minister, Floyd says that he chafes against the church. "It never seemed to offer unconditional acceptance, which I always felt was implicit in true Christianity," he says in his interview.

Rucker Lattimore, the crusty hero of Floyd's opera, is even more defiant when local Baptists shun his new bride. He immediately decides to hold Sunday service in his living room, turning a flower stand into a pulpit.

"Religious zeal," he preaches, "kin be a sickness that will cramp yer mind an' shrink yer soul."

And let all true opera lovers say, "Amen!"

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