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Albee in Eden

A poisonous nursery tale

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Theater and opera came on with a rush after the traditional Easter lull, with high-profile works from Edward Albee, Christopher Durang, and Giacomo Puccini leading the charge. BareBones Theatre Group sported the freshest of these prestigious pieces, presenting Albee's The Play About the Baby at SouthEnd Performing Arts Center barely three years after its Off Broadway premiere.

The title sounds like a sequel to Albee's 1962 sensation, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Indeed, the storyline often seems familiar, with another young and innocent couple falling prey to an older, vicious pair. But we're not in the clubby academe of George and Martha this time around. Nor is this battle as epic, drunken, or visceral.

We're in an Edenic nursery this time, simply evoked in James Yost and Sabrina Blanks' set design by some oversized baby blocks and a stucco arbor draped with vines and pillowcases. Before the lights go down, we already see Amy Campbell and Doug Spagnola as Girl and Boy. She's visibly pregnant and glowing with delight; he's wide-eyed with love and dopey enthusiasm.

Their marital bliss endures for a while after the play begins and she announces that the baby is coming. Father and child suckle at the same breast, and the couple frolics wantonly across the stage, retiring out of sight to do "something new," fulfilling Boy's latest lewd fantasy.

With the arrival of Man and Woman (Marshall Case and Susan Capotosto), love, hope, and joy are gradually extinguished. On a surface level, the intrusive elders are typical Albee creations, by turns charming, witty, diabolical, and baffling. They proclaim that their purpose is to steal the precious baby, yet we never see them with the child.

At certain moments, Man and Woman seemed to be worldly projections of what Boy and Girl would become later in life. When Man and Woman were more becalmed and impersonal, they seemed almost mindless messengers, deliverers of the dings that inevitably afflict cars, newborn babes, optimism, and innocence after they leave the showroom. At their cruelest, however, they seemed to be toying with the blissful parents, mocking God and testing belief like Satan in the Book of Job.

Very likely, Albee would be pleased to have cultivated all these notions. He has the Man and Woman righteously spouting the idea that the wounds and scars we absorb intensify our zest for living and refine our character. They alone address us directly, lending equal measures of divinity and artifice to their purpose. Piety or cynical hypocrisy? You decide.

Yost encourages Case to be the more volatile and unpredictable of the tormentors. Capotosto nicely complements him, eternally cold in her cruelty with the odd outbreak of absurdity when she injects sign language into the proceedings. Campbell and Spagnola are delectable in their innocent joy, but then they're a tad theatrical in their suffering and capitulation. Perhaps by design. If you're looking for comfort and escape when you attend theater, Albee isn't your man. His edgy comedy is tipped with poison.

I wasn't looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with Laughing Wild at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre; watching a previous production that starred April Jones and Sidney Horton, two accomplished performers, I'd felt harangued by Durang.

But under T.J. Derham's sparkling direction, C.A.S.T. lightens the barrage of verbiage while intensifying visual interest and physical comedy. That makes all the difference when you're spending the better part of two hours with a psychotic on furlough from Creedmoor Mental Hospital and a Zen apprentice who lapses into paranoia.

Leslie Beckham as the mental patient is the first to tell us of the fateful encounter at the supermarket. She uses all of the big thrust stage, a bursting bundle of compressed energy -- so volatile, she'll even mouth off to a New York taxi driver. Then there's Michael Simmons, no less brilliant as the nerdy neurotic with raging outbursts of his own.

The fantasia revs up in Act 3 when the two weirdos appear in impossibly bisecting dreams, reliving the supermarket fiasco over and over -- with fresh overlays of comedy, gunfire, and canned tuna spillage. Somehow the two are soon dreaming against each other as the woman transforms herself into Sally Jesse Raphael and the man visits her talk show as the Infant of Prague. Kelli Harkey's costume design for the toddler divinity is priceless, inspiring the most profane and hilarious physical comedy of the evening.

Attending last Wednesday's preview, I had to miss the Vegas Night madness slated for Thursdays when ticket prices are determined by rolling dice, spinning a wheel, or dunking a rubber ducky. Don't make the same mistake.

Opera Carolina continued its winning streak with a La Boheme that grew steadily stronger after a tepid Act 1. Either at stage director Linda Borovsky's misguided behest or through mutual stagefright, Robin Follman as the tubercular Mimi and Fernando de la Mora as the fiery poet Rodolfo botched the familiar key-and-candle business beyond recognition.

But the soprano and the tenor sang their arias and duet decently enough. Both seemed to turn on a turbo switch when they needed their upper range, so the high notes of "Che gelida manina" and "Mi chiamano Mimi" poured out with suddenly increased volume. The ecstasy I heard up in the grand tier during the moonlight duet was debunked when I looked into my opera glasses. No chemistry at all between the lovebirds.

Sparks finally flew when we repaired to the outdoors and the couple joined Rodolfo's friends at Cafe Momus. Borovsky was consistently on-target simulating the Parisian bustle surrounding the cafe, dispatching Rodolfo down the street at one point to chase a purse snatcher. The comical contretemps between the lusty Marcello, the elderly Alcindoro, and the alluring Musetta was delightful. Baritone Frank Hernandez as Marcello sported the richest voice onstage while soprano Karen Driscoll, aided by a luxuriant boa, made a string of male conquests singing her familiar waltz.

Once ignited, the ardor between Mimi and Rodolfo remained warm, yielding sweet pathos as they reconciled and she expired. Charlotte Symphony played beautifully for James Meena all evening, but special praise should be reserved for Peter Dean Beck's scenery. Not on the scale of the Metropolitan Opera production, to be sure, but every bit as effective.

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