Arts » Performing Arts

There's No Business Like Noh Business

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Alan Poindexter has admired the ritual, color, and spectacle of Japanese Noh Drama ever since his student days at UNC-Charlotte. For a long time, he has hoped for the opportunity to import elements of Noh and Kabuki into a production he directed here in Charlotte. Much more recently, Poindexter began dreaming of becoming the artistic director at Children's Theatre and leading the company into their new era of creative collaboration with Charlotte/Mecklenburg Public Library.

Now in The Crane Wife he's doing both, and the result is extraordinary. What's most impressive, aside from the wonderfully stylized acting, is the beautifully integrated design team.

Start with the inspired scenic, costume, and puppet design of Johann Stegmeir. Simply latticed paper screens flank the stage with a wide scrim reaching from the floor to the proscenium -- a vast field for lighting whiz Eric Winkenwerder to throw dreamy showers of gleaming snow. Costumes echo the creamy scenery with black ideogram accents that complement the facial Kabuki makeup worn by the players.

Stegmeir's origami crane glides majestically on sticks wielded by our narrators. Surely, bow-hunting such splendor is an atrocity. And saving it, as the peasant Kokuro does by pulling out a bloody arrow, is surely worthy of a great reward.

But it's the fearsome samurai puppet -- with bulging eyes, mighty sword, and clacking mouth and shoes -- that nearly steals the show. Combined with Jill Bloede's sly stint as our hero's mercantile neighbor, the clopping warrior delivers the comedy highlight.

Poindexter has so many powerful guns to fire that he seems a tad trigger-happy in the opening. Too many different voices chattering too rapidly on a somewhat muffled tape while so many delightful diversions are unfolding before our eyes. Once we settle into the inner frame of the storytelling, the drama unwinds like a carefully woven skein of silken fabric, with luxuriant folds of music and dance. Even when Kokuro and his Crane Wife go to sleep, action is finely calculated, synchronized, and ritualized.

Maximum dramatic intensity is reached when Gary Sivak's sound design and Delia Neil's ethereal choreography are layered on. Stegmeir refrains from massive outbursts of color until he slashes the stage with fiery red when Kokuro finally defies his wife's repeated warnings and discovers her avian origin. The symphonic swell and the ritual movement are key reasons why this is one of the most overwhelming moments ever staged at the Morehead Street fantasy palace.

April Jones gestates evocatively from the center of the origami crane, and while I occasionally wished for a brief flash of something inhuman, all she does as the Crane Wife shimmers with grace. Mark Sutton makes Kokuro's empathy for the injured bird and his susceptibility to monetary temptation parts of the same softness.

Chemistry between the oddly-matched mates is superb, very much in the chaste oriental idiom. When Jones gazed into Sutton's eyes for an instant at the curtain call, it was like watching two dancers after a magical pas de deux. That's how special their intimacy was.

I wouldn't be surprised if Bloede purloined her lordly growl from the famed Shogun miniseries for her comic shtick. The other narrators were a joy to watch in all their incarnations, from soaring and lyrical to petty and yammering.

All the Noh business and show business are handled with exemplary smoothness, bolstering Children's Theatre's right to be recognized as setting the standard for technical theater in Charlotte. Jungalbook is a tough act to follow, but Poindexter's debut as AD serves notice that the company still intends to keep raising the bar.

Walk into the Cullman Avenue theater space in NoDa and you quickly realize something very crucial about the BareBones Theatre Group's new production of The Pitchfork Disney. Yes, this Philip Ridley drama is every bit as weird and fantastic as its title -- and even more puzzling and unpredictable.

You can tell that all isn't right even before the action begins. The cupboard mounted on the upstage wall is some 20 degrees off the perpendicular. An ancient black-and-white TV silently plays cartoons and white noise. Fresh-looking newspapers cover the walls, with extras strewn on the furniture. The door to the outside is triple locked. And a few feet off the ground, a rocking chair stands on top of a cabinet, rocking neurotically.

Dialogue between Presley and Haley Stray is no less odd and twisted, a volley of accusations, hurt feelings, apologies, and role reversals. Whether these perfect children were abandoned by their perfectly humdrum parents 10 years ago when they were 18 -- or whether they're dead and buried as the sibs ardently believe -- it's quite clear that their emotional development was arrested at that point. If not sooner.

The pasty-faced sibs subsist on chocolates, cookies, memories of Mummy and Daddy, and the medicine tablets Haley must take to settle her nerves and get some sleep. Both are convinced that forays into the outside world are fraught with peril, but the ultra-paranoid Haley trembles with each furtive trip Presley takes to the window to merely peep outside through the curtain.

Visitors to the Stray household are even more odd -- so odd that they don't entirely dispel the sibs' notion that they are the sole survivors of a global catastrophe. Cosmo Disney and his wild associate, Pitchfork Cavalier, correspond obliquely to Presley's recurrent nightmare of being pursued by a serial child murderer -- the Pitchfork Disney. So it becomes increasingly probable that what we're watching is itself a dream.

Paying enough attention to get all this might be difficult for theater patrons not attuned to neurotic, apocalyptic comedy -- or those grossed out by Cosmo's vomiting or his fiendish advocacy of cockroach eating. Those delighting in the juvenile silliness of the Strays or Cosmo's bizarre antics might be equally disinclined to ponder the meaning of it all.

BareBones founder James Yost directs with rich detail. Shedding a trenchcoat to reveal a red jacket reminiscent of George Harrison's Sgt. Pepper get-up, Mark Scarboro gives an amazing performance as Cosmo: restless, callous, menacing, curious, candid, and hilariously homophobic. Sort of a horribly twisted Peter Pan visiting our Brit innocents.

Even if they're not as shocking as Cosmo's, our hero Presley has just as many secrets embedded in his strange personality. Justin Bitton navigates the whole range, from meekness to savagery, with a preternatural coherence even if the accent is sometimes shaky.

Immersing herself in a second straight Brit import (she did Closer just last month), Dana Childs has smoother sailing with her vowels, and she manages to unleash the full force of the woman-child's paranoia without destroying her appeal. Too bad she's compelled to sleep through most of Act II.

Ridley seems more inclined to construct riddles than to deliver messages. Perhaps the most intriguing of the puzzles: Who's the dreamer? I'm picking Haley, the lady on the couch. But your guess is as good as mine in this slickly produced offering. Way different from just about any comedy you'll ever see.

What you gradually realize, as Les Ballets Trockadero merrily spoof Russian ballet classics from the gilded age of Marius Petipa and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, is that whoa, these guys are fabulous dancers! Part of their comedy is in their exaggerations of ballet mime and gesture and in their feigned mishaps, pratfalls, and flubbed lifts. Another part is that a cross-dressing male company is brutalizing the champagne delicacies of the ballet repertoire.

But there were times at Belk Theater last Friday during the demolition of Swan Lake Act II, Petipa's Paquita, and Balanchine's Vivaldi Suite when the primo ballerinos got on point and this corps de ballet showed what they can do. What Victor Borge was to concert pianists these guys are -- and more. They're the Harlem Globetrotters of ballet.

Their stage names are a hoot. Among the best packages, naming and pirouetting, are Svetlana Lofatkina (Fernando Gallego), Velour Pilleaux (Paul Ghiselin), and the divine Olga Supphozova (Robert Carter). I didn't catch the name of the gawky guy who did the announced solo, The Dying Swan, but it was some of the funniest nonsense I've ever seen onstage, topped by the mock coyness of the ballerina's never-ending bows. *

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