Arts » Performing Arts

Beast of the East

Plus, a mystery that's a Shear delight

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Up in their ivory towers on prestigious ivied campuses, I'm sure there are smug academics who will confidently tell you that Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is about something more abstract and profound than it purports to be. Go to the current Actor's Theatre of Charlotte production of this 2002 Tony Award winner, and I'll bet you'll be convinced otherwise.

It really is about an esteemed 50-year-old architect who has fallen in love with a quadruped not some obscure, symbolic equivalent. Albee can be elusive, evasive, elliptical and seemingly endless. Not here in this compact, 90-minute toboggan ride from domestic bliss to primal barbarity.

The questions Albee poses are no less straightforward during this familial explosion that erupts after Martin Gray unwisely confides his love for Sylvia to his best friend, Ross. Just how abnormal and inhuman is Martin's sexual relationship with Sylvia? How should a wife, a son and a best friend react to such bestiality?

After the full panorama of bad behavior unravels before our eyes, taking us from drawing room comedy to something that finally shocks and surprises us, we're left with one final evaluation to make. Which is worse: What Martin has done or how those closest to him have reacted to it?

Onstage and behind the scenes, Actor's Theatre is certainly on their game -- which includes being keenly sensitive to those moments when Albee is playing and toying with us. Ann Marie Costa, too long absent from the downtown scene, understands how Albee scores his points while he's gaming. Casting and directing, Costa has each of the four characters precisely tuned so that all the manifold disclosures, right up to the ultimate denouement, unfold with maximum coherence and impact.

Jerry Colbert, who was so arch, stolid and camped-up in the comical title role of Johnny Guitar back in December, takes a totally different path to reach Martin's unique and lonesome emotional frontier. His Pritzker Award winner is blissful, dazed and bewildered. For even at the center of this maelstrom, Martin has a little of the same trouble we have believing that this is really happening.

Colbert had me believing that a gifted, successful architect, who had acted so wisely in choosing his wife and parenting his gay son, could be so oblivious to the consequences. Randell Haynes had more problems convincing me that Ross, Martin's lifelong best friend, could be so treacherous -- particularly when Albee doesn't give us a scene that establishes a deep friendship with Stevie, Martin's wife. But Haynes, too, seems to take the best path, endowing the TV producer with a fastidious, pompous streak.

As Stevie, the perfect life-mate who transforms into a volatile hysteric, Kim Cozort is nothing short of extraordinary. With steely purposefulness, Cozort follows Albee's logic -- that she is so outraged because she has been so patient and discriminating in choosing her husband. Her reactions are all the more riveting in seeming to be a marshalling of her emotional resources rather than an effeminate disintegration.

Although he plays a minor role, never propelling the action forward, Martin's gay son Billy is a particularly shrewd creation. Not only does his antipathy and disgust underscore how far beyond the pale Dad has gone, Billy himself becomes a target of Martin's prejudices at unguarded moments during hostilities.

Showing us once again that our ethics and inclinations are a scrambled mess in the tenebrous realm of sexuality. Brian Jones, who surfaced briefly last fall in readings of Dairy Queen Days at the Thinking in Pictures festival, makes a more emphatic and extended Charlotte debut as the troubled teen whose heart is nearly as wide open as his dad's.

Jones is equally compelling in his disbelief and compassion. His ambivalence toward Martin's deviant actions is most like our own. We stand apart from all the characters onstage in one key respect: We don't feel the full weight of what Martin has done in The Goat until we see who Sylvia is.

After seeing Shear Madness twice at Booth Playhouse -- and watching two different audiences finger two different murder culprits -- I can issue a decisive verdict on the PAC's latest cabaret venture. There are no weak links in this crowd-pleasing comedy mystery.

That would include the food, drink and wait service available during the peppy pre-show. If you're not ticketed for the cocktail or classroom tables that have replaced the theater seats in the orchestra, you can still snag drinks, munchies and sushi in the lobby and bring them inside. When the PAC brought Forever Plaid to the McGlohon last April, such cabaret niceties were a work-in-progress.

The welcome carryover from Plaid is the onstage polish. No matter what the audience threw at them -- and they're truly the wild-card seventh character in this crime scene investigation -- the preset sextet were unfazed. Flustered? Yes. Flummoxed? Of course. And deliciously guilty as hell.

Christian Casper runs the show as Nick Rossetti, the undercover officer dispatched by Charlotte P.D. when world-famous concert pianist Isabel Czerny sends out her distress call. He takes questions and observations from the audience during intermission, then presides over the interrogation when we question the suspects.

Learning the role from director Michael Fennimore, who has played Rossetti up in Boston over 6,000 times, Casper proves to be an admirable quick-study. No, he does not exude the suave nonchalance of a performer who has mastered nearly every variant that could possibly arise during the audience's interrogation. But he has the right blend of police brusqueness and emcee poise to push things along agreeably.

Tom Wahl, on the other hand, has the responsibility of keeping the comedy coming as Tony Whitcomb, the swishy owner of the Shear Madness Hair Styling Salon, close by the murder scene. Wahl doesn't take on this burden shyly, firing off a steady stream of winsome shtick that begins in the pre-show shampooing -- executed with a wantonness that makes his sluttish employee, flaming redhead Barbara De Marco, seem almost respectable.

Portraying the Myers Park socialite Elinor Belk Shubert, Linda Edwards was eliminated by Rossetti from the suspect list on both occasions that I saw her, after flaunting a pudding-thick Southern belle drawl. The superelegant Martin Thompson, as purported antique hustler Eddie Lawrence, De Marco's not-so-secret lover, modulates his guiltiness with haughty aplomb. If Zillah Glory hasn't captured the full mystic connection between gum popping, trashiness and manicures, her embodiment of Barbara De Marco is tantalizingly close.

Joseph Klosek completes the cast as Rossetti's earnest, befuddled assistant. While true buffs will be able to find holes in the solutions offered up to the mystery, the experience of Shear Madness is, on balance, sheer delight.

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