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Two Dire Diaries 

Plus, a Beauty of a ballet

Maybe if I'd sat further back at Duke Power Theatre, I would have noticed sooner that Collaborative Arts' entire production of Fiction is performed by three actors on a way-oversized stack of three books. Not to worry. The give-and-take between books and real life gets fairly constant play as we explore the suspenseful love triangle at the core of Steven Dietz's cleverly crafted drama.

We see the husband and wife in this triangle, Michael and Linda Waterman, from their first chance meeting at a Paris café. Eventually, we get replays of this scene in their concise diary accounts. These passages reveal an instant magnetism between the two. Other passages, which they'll read many years later, contain the seeds of their undoing. Or, more precisely, their mutual recognition.

Michael and Linda are both novelists, you see. So while their diaries loom ever-large (open pages with inky scribble serve as floor and backdrop for the top level of Andrew Gibbons' set design), Fiction is also about the books that the Watermans write -- and those they don't.

Abby Drake, the administrator of a writer's colony, completes the love triangle. Played by Elise Wilkinson with a coolness that never quite discourages pursuit, Abby seems somewhat secondary at first. But her significance mushrooms after intermission when we learn how she has impacted the artistic output of both Watermans.

From certain angles, Fiction turns out to be Abby's story. One of the Watermans takes advantage of her, and she exacts her vengeance through the other. When we tally up the evening's intimacies and altercations, Abby's scorecard is also balanced in terms of helping the Watermans achieve their artistic potentials during their sojourns at the Drake Colony.

The Watermans do prevail when we reckon in the wit that Dietz has lavished upon them. Although she gives Linda more energy than we see from Abby, Sheila Snow Proctor doesn't tip the balance, aware that Linda has more than one malignity in her brain. Nor does she overdo Linda's spontaneous brilliance as a university lecturer, knowing perhaps than Dietz has made her too good to be true.

Michael's urbanity fits Joe Copley like a glove, but director James Yost draws more energy, urgency and vulnerability than we usually see from him, all of it effective. The through-line of Michael's character is his penchant for palming off truly great writers' wit as his own. Copley delivers the witticisms with just the right nonchalance -- and suffers being caught in his thieveries with a suave, world-weary sigh that is equally apt.

Dietz is having his fun with us both dramatically and intellectually. To prevent leaving us with a bad aftertaste, he allows himself extra portions of the trite and derivative qualities he ascribes to his protagonists. Are Linda's lecture segments stolen lovingly from The Heidi Chronicles? Likely. Has a fictional fiction writer pursuing female quarry been brought up short passing off others' brilliance as his own? Many, many times before this.

The difference here is that Dietz is not a hack. His insights into the psyche of writers, both real and intentionally bogus, are worth your consideration.

Gloriously transparent artifice was obviously running amok last week if we add North Carolina Dance Theatre's Natural Beauty to the downtown rampage. When George Balanchine's Rubies is the least impressive item on the bill, it's fair to say the company is dealing their audience in on some very fine gems.

Especially when the elegant Traci Gilchrest sets the barre so high as the lead ruby, dancing to Stravinsky's Capriccio. Whenever I began to weary of Karinska's epigonic costume design -- reiterated on all 15 of the dancers -- or Balanchine's predictability, there was the timeless symmetry and perfection of Gilchrest. Lead duo Rebecca Carmazzi and Addul Manzano provided equal relief from the ensemble tedium and the loud, distorted soundtrack.

Unquestionably, the most precious jewel of the evening was the Charlotte premiere of Nacho Duato's Na Floresta. While Rubies seemed far older than its 40 years, Duato's 1990 choreography, using music by Villa-Lobos to evoke and celebrate the Amazonian rainforest, was as fresh as tomorrow. Glyphic poses, flowing peasant dresses and movement among the ensemble of 11 that sported moments of folksiness and sensuality wove a vivid abstraction with distinctly Central and South American colorations.

If Gilchrest's exploits in The Nutcracker and Rubies seemed to proclaim that this is now Traci's Time at NCDT, then Mia Cunningham's bravura in Floresta was a clear indication that the 16-year veteran still has something to say on that issue. The rejuvenated Cunningham was like a thing possessed, her movements quick, vibrant and fluid with undiminished musicality. What stood out above all else was her blithe fearlessness. She seemed to fly as the dance climaxed with a gorgeously affirmative lift.

Resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden had the temerity to follow this sizzler with his own world premiere of Set Rise Fall. He certainly wasn't shy about meeting the challenge, firing his dawning booster rockets to the strains of The Fifth Dimension's "Age of Aquarius" and orbiting onward with Chopin, Steve Reich and Sweet Honey in the Rock.

I'm guessing that the blazing orange bar lowered from the fly loft, lifted, and then lowered again symbolized the setting, rising and falling sun in this busy spectacle. I liked the visionary touch where Sasha Janes first appeared in a pure white sleeved-and-skirted linen costume, but Rhoden's subsequent embellishments diluted the ultimate impact. Purity and spirituality notwithstanding, we wound up with about seven guys onstage at the Belk similarly clad -- and I discovered there was a limit to how long I could contentedly watch a bunch of guys dancing in dresses.

The primeval repose of Duato's forest seemed preferable.

After their smashingly successful freeze-dried rendition of All the Great Books (abridged) in October 2005, you had to believe that Charlotte hadn't seen the last of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and their irreverence. Last week at Booth Playhouse, the trio merely desecrated The Complete History of America (abridged).

Adam Long, Reed Martin, and Austin Tichenor took us back to the thrilling days of Vespucci -- and puns just as bad, hokey and shameless as ever. More brazen this time: Instead of peppering their script with barbs aimed at Charlotte and their Bobcats Arena competition, the Rolling Stones, they went for the political jugular, staging a lengthy Q&A starring Martin as President Bush. So low has W's popularity sunk that there wasn't a murmur of protest during the entire mockery.

In the spirit of true bi-partisanship, Tichenor tossed a grenade at the sainted JFK, reminding us of his fleshy foibles.

Fresh touches like this were all the evidence I needed to conclude that the RSC road warriors haven't tired of their shtick. They're still fine-tuning the act and still up to mischief.

With a couple of slots open on my calendar, I decided to peep in on two of the area's best youth programs in performance. I'd seen Charlotte Youth Ballet before, so their spring production of Alice in Wonderland wasn't a big surprise, though the company and its work aren't nearly as highly regarded as they should be.

But I'd never seen the kids at Fort Mill High School in action until this past Sunday afternoon when my wife and I attended their latest musical production. Definitely an eye-opener.

Back to the rabbit hole first. Staging a youth ballet at cavernous Ovens Auditorium sounds like the perfect recipe for disaster, right? Not so. Truth is, Youth Ballet is something of a misnomer for what artistic director/choreographer Gay Porter & Co. put onstage. Yes, there are dozens of dance students from hedgehog size through high school onstage -- 86 students, to be exact.

Only the crème-de-la-crème, however, get to do dance solos, and Porter imports professionals to do all the principal roles. So we had Charlotte mime prince Hardin Minor as Lewis Carroll and the Mad Hatter, and Puerto Rican pro Aida Francesca Garcia as Alice. Scenery is to the same high standard, sourced in by Gregg Duckworth and Michael Vance, the former CL Theaterperson of the Year.

Admittedly, the cavalcade of clubs, hearts, diamonds and spades -- with additional armadas of butterflies, lobsters and flowers -- could get a bit wearisome to balletomane purists. Try telling that to those battalions of parents with their digicams.

Flashbulbs were popping with the same hearty disregard of official prohibitions at Fort Mill's Footloose. Small wonder. The biggest production numbers seemed to group all 92 cast members on the stage at once, with a drilled unison in the dancing that resoundingly echoes Broadway.

Fort Mill High's school chorus director Michael Dove has birthed a juggernaut. Travis Bowe as Ren and Kelsey Mula as Ariel struck plenty of vocals as the teen rebels, but Jordan Lukens as Willard and Julia Matthews as Rusty were at the same high level in supporting roles. Energy and precision in the massive ensembles was impressive -- nearly justifying the wild enthusiasm of the audience.

It would be totally justified if these talented kids were receiving stage direction and acting training on the same high level as Dove's choral leadership and Elizabeth Dukes' superb choreography. Alas, my wife tells me that funding for such frills has been amputated.

The two Carolinas aren't so different after all.

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