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Three Striking Acts 

Actor's Theatre show knocks it out of the park

For a Tony Award drama that's provoking more than its share of righteous Bible Belt babble, Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out is a disarmingly reverent experience. Taking its cue from PBS's stately Baseball miniseries directed by Ken Burns, Greenberg takes our national pastime and shows it to us as emblematic of the glories, failures and tragedies of American democracy.

But Greenberg goes further than a documentary can -- yes, further even than George Will -- in extolling the unique American beauties of baseball. Through his ballplayers -- and one new fan brilliantly tossed into their midst -- Greenberg expresses an unabashed awe for the grace of champion Major Leaguers, for the poetic spectacle of the game, and for the sanctity of the temples where the games are played.

So it's with a mixture of horror, fascination and wonder that we watch events spin out of control in the wake of superstar centerfielder Darren Lemming's sudden announcement that he's gay. Repercussions in the New York media zoo are even more earthshaking than those generated when the unholy trinity of George Steinbrenner, Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin were hatching headlines. Trouble in the paradise of the New York Empires' locker room reaches critical mass when the team brings up a hotshot minor league pitcher, dripping with backwoods ignorance and racist/homophobic venom, to become their closer in the thick of the pennant race.

The current Actor's Theatre production, directed by Lon Bumgarner, may be their smartest ever. Set designer Chip Decker, using heretical Fenway Park green to depict a New York ballyard, has his fatal pitching mound jutting out into the audience. On the third-base side of the symmetrical layout, the Empire dugout can quickly convert to a locker room. On the first-base side, the visitors' dugout can instantly transform into a functional shower (discreetly glassed to waist level in deference to Charlotte's signature morals wardens).

Behind home plate, a huge American flag dominates centerstage. Bumgarner is not the director who would let us lose sight of Greenberg's linkage between the spiritual essence of baseball and the spiritual essence of our republic.

It's palpable from the moment the lights come up. If "take me out" are the first three words of baseball's anthem -- the only instance of a major sport that has an anthem -- we're going to hear the National Anthem sung with Whitney Houston bravura. Before that (and throughout intermission), twin video screens over the dugouts beam a nonstop stream of baseball history and lore.

Directors must look for a mixed-race actor to portray Darren, whose bloodlines parallel Tiger Woods'. But as a .333 hitter, he can be as muscular as Barry Bonds or as wiry as Ichiro. In Jeremy Davis, we're definitely leaning toward Ichiro. Davis beautifully projects the Apollonian cool of a celebrated, fabulously wealthy black athlete who hasn't had to pull himself out of a ghetto to succeed. Yet he boils over with fine spontaneity in the face of all the affronts and tribulations he experiences after his hubristic announcement.

Brian Robinson narrates much of the action as shortstop Kippy Sunderstrom, the closeted intellectual whose empathy triggers the tragedy on the ballfield. Veering from winsome frankness to agonized self-reproach -- personifying a revered team leader every step of the way despite his flaws -- Robinson gives his best local performance since winning CL's Actor of the Year honors for 1993.

Yet Joe Rux nearly steals the show as starstruck gay accountant Mason Marzak, Darren's business advisor. It is he who projects the giddiness of a new fan -- not devoid of open physical worship -- when he is fed high doses of the special radiation one feels in close proximity to athlete demigods. He's so emotionally exposed that, when Darren threatens to quit the team in midseason, he pleads with the ardor and righteousness of a hometown fanatic who feels a binding covenant between a player and the city he represents.

That isn't the only religious resonance one catches during this magical evening. Things happen in mystical threes, we're told, in the game of baseball. So prepare for a leisurely retro evening with two intermissions and three striking acts. Ironically, one of the shower scenes ruffling local yokels' feathers -- all of whom are innocent of actually reading the script -- compares the new self-consciousness in the Empire locker room to the expulsion from Eden. After Darren's announcement, there's no return to the paradise of nonchalant nakedness.

Among the minor players, Austin Herring is the standout as the fireballing head case, Shane Mungitt, but there's also a nice avuncular quality to Jim Esposito's performance as the Skipper. Not only is this team manager as down-to-earth as tobacco juice, he spouts Stengelisms that seem to come out of left field by way of Catch-22.

Come to think of it, this Actor's Theatre production is a great catch for Charlotte theatergoers -- and a prime example why Company of the Year honors keep piling up on Stonewall Street.

Surf's up for one more week at SouthEnd Performing Arts Center, where BareBones Theatre Group artistic director James Yost has chosen to produce Psycho Beach Party with non-traditional casting. Flying in the face of Alan Poindexter's legendary Pterodactyl exploits, Yost has chosen a woman to portray leading lady Florence "Chicklet" Forrest.Emily Van Dyke does prove a point as Chicklet: Charles Busch's campy comedy can click without outre crossdressing kinkiness. I'll confess that with Van Dyke as the split-personality Gidget dominatrix, I saw Psycho Beach with new eyes. She brings oodles of excess energy to her worship of surfboard idol Kanaka, and she absolutely nails the kaleidoscopic split-second personality shifts of the climactic scene.

Victor Sayegh conveys Kanaka's outward conceit and his subterranean sex-slave impulses with equal success. Ali Sheppard brings impish optimism to Berdine, Chicklet's lesbian admirer, and Karen Lamb is superb as Chicklet's monster mom. As movie icon Bettina Barnes, newcomer Sierra Santana has to be seen to be believed.

If you can squeeze yourself and an anklebiter into one of Children's Theatre's remaining performances of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, you're in for 45 minutes of sheer delight. Nikki Adkins is a squealing, motor-mouthed joy as the irksome rodent, and director Joanna Gerdy lovingly leads us from one larded shtick to another.Saturday's matinee audience was most convulsed by the baroque mirror routine where Adkins teamed up with fellow Tarradiddler Chaz Pofahl. But Adkins' epic climb to the top of the kitchen fridge to display her artwork was nearly as riotous. With ageless Steven Ivey as our boy victim/narrator, there's nary a misstep in this fun adaptation of Laura Joffe Numeroff's chef d'oeuvre.

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