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Babbling on in Babylon

Ugly, obnoxious, and essential

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Once again, it's time to fasten your seatbelts at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte. Christopher Durang supplies the satirical bumpy ride in Betty's Summer Vacation, and director Lon Bumgarner refuses to mute the wicked playwright's fury. So the nightmare oceanfront timeshare turns out to be almost the exact opposite of Hollywood's mindless summer saccharine.

Betty should have known better before committing to a getaway on the Jersey shore with her friend Trudy Siezmagraff. She hoped the gentle lapping of the waves might calm Trudy's neurotic blatherings, but the non-stop sound of her own voice prevents Trudy from even hearing the surf.

To both Betty and Trudy's surprise, one of their housemates is Trudy's mother. Mama Siezmagraff can babble on as inanely as her daughter, but she's not an overprotective threat to the girls' vacation frolics. On the contrary, Mama's laissez-faire attitude can be credited for making multiple violations of her daughter possible -- by her father -- when Trudy was a child.

Since Trudy's mom also turns out to be the property owner, her lack of judgment soon becomes apparent when we behold the remainder of Betty's housemates -- the reclusive Keith, a possible serial killer, and Buck, a sexual battering ram with Olympic appetites.

To say all hell breaks loose during this Jersey getaway would be something of an understatement. When you fill your stage with irritating and repellent characters, as Durang does here with such evident relish, it shouldn't be surprising when your audience is frequently irritated and repelled by the spectacle.

That was partly Durang's intent in 1999. In a country that ravenously devours cruelty, sensationalism, and the occasional dismemberment in its daily media diet -- turning monsters into celebrities -- you have to go fairly far to create shocking effects.

We've seen many eccentric portrayals from Jorja Ursin before -- it's her specialty -- but as Mrs. Seismagraff, there's an edge of mean indifference we've never seen so powerfully from her before. Similarly, there's a concentrated power in Johanna Jowett's portrait of Trudy that adds a pointed grimness to her Lorena Bobbitt-like freakout.

The men are so piggish they seem to oink. Brett Gentile brilliantly captures the bipolarity of Keith: so shy he cherishes the privacy of his bedroom like a holy sanctuary yet so resentful of his abuse as a child that he feels justified in any action he takes against anybody. If Keith seems twisted by rejection, Buck seems positively buoyed by it. Again, Chris Salazar carries off Buck's conceit with so little exaggerated swagger that he too is disturbingly real.

So is Hank West as Mr. Vanislaw, a boozing derelict picked up by Mrs. Siezmagraff who flashes the nakedness beneath his trenchcoat as often as he exhales. With so many pricks to pick from, it's inevitable that Trudy will reach for a kitchen knife.

Amid these unsavory aggressive men -- and the warped women they leave in their wake -- Betty is a small, fiercely buffeted island of sanity. Even she can be an irritant, since the weakness of a puling child surfaces in Stephanie DiPaolo's performance as often as her spirited affirmations of decency, humanity, and -- goddammit! -- responsibility.

It was touch-and-go at intermission whether the group sitting behind me would come back for Act 2. That's not to fault Bumgarner, who gets flawless performances from all of his cast in rendering some disturbingly flawed people. By the end of the evening, I also developed a healthy respect for Amy Akerblom's costuming.

What seemed most off-putting to the folks in the third row last Saturday were the interludes when there was no action onstage whatsoever -- and no actors. This is when we hear most vociferously from the three "voices" (Carrie Anne Hunt, Ryan Stinnett, and Bryan Ragon) who haunt the summer cottage. Not surprisingly, they're clamoring for action.

As a group, I found the voices to be the most irritating and strident element of Durang's satire. They aren't silent when the living characters return to the scene. In fact, they're the one force that's capable of irritating all of them -- something of a feat.

But it isn't until Act 2 that we grasp who the voices are -- and, consequently, the point of Durang's torrent of boorish aggression. You can actually form different conclusions about the voices. They may represent the corrosively vulgar tastes of America's mass media and their presumed audience, or they may be a radically unflattering portrait of us, the people sitting out in Durang's audience.

One other possibility you may wish to consider. The unholy trio may be Betty herself taken to the utmost extreme -- because she can't seem to tear herself away from this rancid orgy. I also found myself comparing these voices to the choruses of Greek tragedy, a useful way of measuring how far wrong Durang thinks we've gone as a civilized society in the past 2400 years.

Whatever they are, the voices powerfully project a primitive hungering for violence, perversion, and depravity that is insatiable. Have a good time.

CP Summer Theatre has bumptiously hit its stride in their current production of Chicago. For one thing, director Tom Hollis reminds us that the wildly successful Broadway revival of 1996 was conceived -- cleverly on the cheap -- as a musical vaudeville. Instead of the dream sequences of the 2002 movie, we get ironic intros from emcee Buddy Hammonds. Or, in a delightful wrinkle, from onstage music director Drina Keen.

Perched onstage behind the performers, Keen's band exceeds their usual verve. Eddie Mabry's choreography seethes with the proper bootleggy wantonness, making all the big numbers sparkle. But the sizzle comes pre-eminently from Lesley Shires as Roxie Hart, transformed into a decadent sexpot with her new curly locks.

Roxie's partner in crime -- and vaudeville -- matches her step for step and note for note. Unfortunately, Kelly Cusimano as Velma Kelly doesn't quite match Shires for brassy confidence. She'll visibly steal a glance at her toes walking down stairs or nearing the edge of the stage. Gotta have more vanity than that.

Patrick O'Herron sure does as slickster shyster Billy Flynn, the essence of suave. And Dana Alderman is so diffident as Roxie's hapless husband Amos that I actually felt sorry for the sap.

You get used to the whoosh of the side curtains as the stage crew slides the simplified scenery on and off with sledges. The sound of the back wall opening and closing may remind you of a warehouse loading dock, but the resounding echo isn't really that different from the clang of a prison door slamming shut. So you can make believe it's on purpose.

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