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Barrel of Laughs

Actor's Theatre's triumphant hoot


For a nation of pioneers, we're not very good at coping with the curves everyday life tosses our way. Priding ourselves on embracing new challenges and extolling our American birthright of liberty, we're not particularly tolerant when we stumble unexpectedly on deviant behavior.

With those qualifications, Cass Harris and Lois Coleman are the two all-American women at the core of David Lindsay-Abaire's Wonder of the World. They meet on a bus heading to Niagara Falls. Cass is in flight from her adoring husband after learning the horrible truth about the severed Barbie doll heads in his sweater drawer. Lois has fewer options. Her husband, tired of Lois's incessant drinking, has abandoned her.

Cass is too air-headed and impulsive to simply sit down and resolve her issues with her husband. Outside his deviant relationship with Barbies, Kip is also starting to seem somewhat humdrum to his wife. Lois, on the other hand, is simply too besotted, too self-indulgent, and too self-pitying to have a stab at drying out and moving on with her life.

The two mixed-up women hit it off on the bus -- if for no other reasons than striking up a conversation and having a sidekick are among the items on kookie Cass's extensive to-do list. Along with appearing on The Newlywed Game and bedding a bellhop. So they share a hotel room by the falls: Cass, Lois, and the barrel she plans to commit suicide in.

Lois's barrel is a wonder in its own right. Perhaps Lindsay-Abaire was on a mission to prove that laughs can come out of a barrel, bringing fresh life to a weary old phrase. With an imagination that can comically juxtapose a frizzed Barbie head with a helicopter, the playwright is more than up to the challenge. The mind-blowing locations he takes us to also include a boat, a car, a scenic lookout, and a hilarious triptych of cheesy themed restaurants.

The Actor's Theatre of Charlotte production goes with the cinematic flow as Chip Decker directs a shrewdly chosen cast and lets them go wild. Decker also designs resourcefully, offering us delightful surprises as we shift from bedrooms to the wondrous outdoors and then to the sky.

Cat Zeggert imbues Cass with an unflaggingly innocent vivacity, nearly enough screwball energy to drive this romp single-handedly. But she has plenty of help, beginning with Sheila Snow Proctor as Lois. Gradually, we realize that Lois is as opportunistically downcast as Cass is incurably upbeat -- through Proctor's freshest performance of the season.

Lee Thomas knows Kip to the bone: cuddly, banal, with a droll lack of self-awareness. His desperation drives the plot as much as Cass's wanderlust. First he hires a pair of oddball detectives from a Yellow Pages ad to track Cass down, and then he accepts their recommendation for a marital therapist.

These recruits are three of the strangest buzzards you'll ever see -- with energy levels that sometimes make the blithe Cass appear sedated by comparison. Jorja Ursin and Tom Scott feast on Karla and Glen, a dysfunctional couple driven to detective work after successive failures trying to retail ice cream and yarn.

If you expected Lindsay-Abaire to endorse marriage counseling or group therapy -- or even Alcoholics Anonymous -- brace yourself for Janine, who literally turns healing into a circus while fulfilling Cass's Newlywed Game fantasy. Tonya McClellan dazzles in that cameo and five others equally zany, including the helicopter pilot and all three bizarro waitresses.

While some satires stray so far beyond normal that we suspect the playwright of forgetting its existence, Wonder of the World gives us Captain Mike, a wholesome widower tour guide who falls for Cass and offers to show her the USA in a Winnebago. A wonderfully apt fate is crafted for the captain with infinite care, and Michael Nester plays every step of his journey beautifully.

This is the sort of edgy frolic Actor's Theatre is treasured for. Anybody wondering whether Lindsay-Abaire could equal Fuddy Meers will be reassured by both the script of Wonder and its triumphant realization.

Two pillars of Charlotte's performing arts scene made graceful exits last week. At CPCC, Kathryn Horne took her leave of Dance Central with a Gala Performance that intriguingly encapsulated her group's 21-year history while showcasing their signature dance pieces. A more grandiose departure was in store for David Tang's last turn conducting the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and the Oratorio Singers in Mendelssohn's Elijah with five guest soloists.

Calling Tang's farewell his finest hour would be an understatement. The mammoth oratorio -- plus intermission and bon voyage ceremony -- clocked in at about 170 minutes.

If the orchestra was inexplicably downsized -- and of less than biblical proportions -- they soldiered valiantly for most of the evening. The brass held firm, aside from a couple of clogged passages, all night long, and the strings made up in sweetness what they lacked in mass. Principal percussionist Peyton Becton issued magnificent volleys of thunder on timpani, infusing spirit into the chorus and the brass.

From the outset, baritone Richard Zeller more than matched that magnificence as Elijah. Good thing he did. The feisty prophet of the Israelites begins by decreeing three years of drought before challenging the Priests of Baal to the famed trial at foot of Mount Carmel.

That dramatic confrontation, a superbly scored dialogue with the chorus, was preceded by Elijah's entreaties on behalf of the Widow of Zarepath, resurrecting her dead son. Ostensibly, that dialogue is between Elijah and the Widow, sung by soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme. But nearly all the drama is vested in the prophet and the large ensembles. Zeller was buttery taking up the child, his successive prayers to God building to an almost confident demand backed by the trumpets and violins.

Then after Zeller and Chandler-Eteme expressed thanksgiving in a duet embracing the watchwords of the Jewish faith, the Oratorios blasted in with their jubilation, backed by trumpets and French horns in full cry when they reached their ultimate affirmation: "He is gracious, compassionate; He is righteous."

Yup, it was a grand farewell for Tang. Eminently appropriate that the mighty Oratorios should be on hand, since Tang has been so instrumental in their ascendancy over the past eight years.

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