Arts » Performing Arts

A Midsummer's Wet Dream

But The Farm shouts down Genet

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With Charlotte's alternative theater scene kicking into high gear over the past season, it was only a matter of time before some of the kinkiness that we saw with some regularity years ago at the old Pterodactyl Club once again reared its lascivious head. Last weekend, at Off-Tryon Theatre and at the Hart-Witzen Gallery, you could inject yourself with a double dose of raunch.Shakespeare was the unexpected fountainhead of inspiration at Off-Tryon, where The Actor's Gym is mounting a deliciously scandalous version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Aside from our chaste heroines, Hermia and Helena, every wench in sight is decked out in negligee -- with a profusion of garters strewn around the pack.

It's all as wholesome as a Tupperware party -- done in the wanton Victoria's Secret style. All of the gentle, mischievous wood sprites and fairies are cast as females, lengthening the parade of pulchritude.

Now I'm sure that I've seen a female Puck onstage before, despite the sprite's Robin Goodfellow alias. But a female Oberon, king of the fairies? Here Actor's Gym may be breaking new ground -- and some might contend that Shakespeare is spinning in it.

Actually, I rather enjoyed director Tony Wright's wicked take on Athenian woodlore. Short of 3/4-nude lesbians coupling in the wild, how do you make lust shocking in the new millennium? But straight women in the audience should probably pay half price. All the guys onstage are in pajamas -- from Theseus, Duke of Athens, right on down to the rudest of the mechanicals.

When you consider the matter, Wright's slumber party isn't such a perverse idea after all. It certainly preserves the charming ambiguity Shakespeare wove into his magical entertainment four centuries ago, keeping the answer to whose dream is this? as elusive as ever. Whether this is all Bottom's dream, one of the young lovers' dreams, or a dream souffle combining some of each, all are appropriately dressed for the activity. And if this is our dream, why then this cast is sufficiently undressed to add a little wetness to the reverie.

Laced up with seedy, sensuous choreography from Joseph Baez and backed up with a raucous soundtrack, Actor's Gym nicely sustains the decadence when we cut away from the lovers. So despite their outrageous bickerings and their lapses in fidelity and intelligence, the lovers remain freshly innocent and mundane when we cut back. Toss in the buffoonery of the mechanicals, and the petty Athenians sweethearts look positively noble by contrast.

As Bottom, Hank West serves up the choicest buffoonery, his orotund delivery ably projecting his outsized ego. But you'll discover other delicacies inside the huddle of the rustics. Paul Goodson is stiffly officious as Quince, director of the rude theatrical, and Jonathon Ewart is lovably dumb and diffident as Snug, the apologetic lion of the tragedy. As Flute, newcomer Baez offers a modicum of consolation for female theatergoers. Crossdressing as the heroine of the tragedy, he's the sexiest Thisbe I've ever seen.

In the fairy queen Titania's case, what the bewitched seductress is doing weighs far more heavily than what she's saying. Fetchingly permed, gloved, and gartered, Casey Gogolin proves to be even more enticing in person than in her PR photos. As her master Oberon, Laura Aguirre is just as sensational in her dominatrix gear. Less strain in asserting her command -- and more nonchalance -- would have been even better.

Among the Athenian lovers, genial Dave Reinhardt was a standout as the smug Demetrius. Nearly as pleasing were Ryan McCurdy as the sullen Lysander and Amy Laughter as the scorned Helena. Tony Wright is more regal as Duke Theseus than Courtney Wright as his captive bride-to-be.

The three Athenian couples haven't tossed off their bedclothes when the lovers emerge from the wood and disclose their fantastical, dreamlike adventures to the Duke and his Amazon queen. They're still in PJ's after their weddings as they watch the tragical Pyramus and Thisbe meeting their hilarious doom. Perhaps they've decided that their slumber party is too good to poop. Perhaps they're right.

Down at the renovated (but still funky) Hart-Witzen Gallery, a fresh draught of uptown performing arts activity is brewing for the season ahead. The Farm is the first of the new young groups to invade the West 5th Street space, closing out their second summer. With a double bill directed by Matt Cosper and Anthony Cerrato, Farm's uptown debut was brash, energetic, and avant-garde, if not altogether auspicious.I'm not sure that Jean Genet has ever been presented inside the I-277 belt before, but I can clearly recall The Balcony at UNCC during Alan Poindexter's student days when the Loaf was a newborn. The French playwright, with his oblique texts and renegade temperament, is a congenial presence on campus and in Bohemia -- and The Maids is certainly an apt tenant at the H-W.

Unfortunately, Cosper and crew aren't gentle with that good text. Compounding the complexities, Cosper casts the elder of the two maid sisters, Solange, as a man.

What's really unpalatable is how much of the youthful energies of Stephanie Holladay and Bryson Avery, as Claire and Solange, is channeled into pure shouting. Obliterated in the process are irony, arrogance, and all the subtle shadings of madness that make Genet's work so fascinating.

After intermission, onstage artistry improved. Using the ideas he encountered in Strindberg's Miss Julie, creator/director Anthony Cerrato has created an imaginative, playful look at...something.

Most of the early blackouts suggest that Cerrato is preoccupied with the substance and superficiality of modern life -- and the diminishing gulf between the two. Amid the blizzard of symbolic objects dangling in the air -- and the disjointed actions of the young couple who manipulate them -- clear meaning is hard to come by. Thankfully, there's no scarcity of fun and comedy in the piece.

More collaborations like this little trinket will make Hart-Witzen well worth revisiting.

Between trips to local theater productions, I was able to get in a couple of chamber music fixes at the fourth annual Brightstar Music Festival. Music and instrumentalists were up to the event's standards, and as usual, the McGlohon Theatre acoustics at Spirit Square added extra luster.Eduardus Halim had most of the spotlight on opening night last Tuesday, with a performance of Chopin's Piano Sonata #3 that became progressively more powerful and assured. But Halim's brilliance was eclipsed by violinist Soovin Kim's fire and soul in Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio. The first movement was taken up to a thrilling tempo, and the closing theme-and-variations had more than the usual humor.

The only audible weakness in the presentation could be traced to the WDAV emcees. Mike McKay couldn't have been this lame in past years. Last Tuesday, he contented himself with praising the audience, the sponsors, and the composers. Over and over and over again. For the merits of the musicians, we were referred to our programs. Joe Brant was much more insightful emceeing the Saturday night concert, but he neglected to even introduce the wonderful musicmakers.

Brightstar organizer Jennifer Sperry hosted with her usual enthusiasm and charm. She acquitted herself well as oboist in Mozart's Oboe Quartet and in a Poulenc trio. Next year, she might consider handing emcee chores entirely over to Brant -- along with a program.

preview

umberger hits the comback trailDoomsayers have predicted that company founder Steve Umberger and his merry band of actors will never be seen again in a Charlotte Rep production. Look up at Spirit Square this week, and you'll discover that the Ubiquitous One isn't missing a beat since his purportedly amiable Rep reassignment.Umberger and his wife Rebecca Koon, both seasoned actors on stage and TV, aren't haunting the unemployment office or waiting for a phone call from new Rep management. So the opening of Shirley Valentine this Wednesday isn't a rent party. The one-woman show, directed by Umberger and starring Koon, is an outright celebration.

An anniversary, to be precise. Ten years ago, the couple brought Shirley to the intimate upstairs space at Spirit Square, the extinct Actors Studio. They'd been married about a year, Koon was pregnant as the Rep production went into rehearsal, and when the run ended in May, she was just beginning to show. That November, they remembered, naming their daughter Maggie Valentine Umberger.

Now with a new Umberger company, Summer Stage, Shirley returns downstairs at Spirit Square to the Duke Courtyard Playhouse.

I doubt that Willy Russell's sunny comedy is any less relevant today. His heroine is that most humdrum of creatures -- the British housewife. Until she dares herself to fly away on impulse to the Grecian Isles, fleeing her moribund marriage to Joe Bradshaw, and becoming Shirley Valentine once more.

"One person shows are usually about the star," says Umberger, "and they're really not director's pieces. But I really love this material, and I think what attracted me to it is that it's the only one-person show I know that really tells a story. It has an art, and it has a progression, and Shirley changes with life-altering thoughts and circumstances. It's a really interesting trick that Willy Russell does in the writing."

Perfectly complemented by the missus' bravura. Our headline when we reviewed the original performance 10 years ago was "Carpe Koon." Through August 31, you can do exactly that.

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