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Booked for Dopiness

Actor's Theatre brings remedial literature to the stage

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Odds were stacked against Actor's Theatre of Charlotte when they brought the latest Reduced Shakespeare to town. Beginning with The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged), the Reduced Company's travesties have been reproduced around the metro area in four different forms. After the powdered versions of the Bible and American history made the rounds, the Reduced Company itself -- including actor/writers Reed Martin and Austin Tichnor -- came to town last fall with All the Great Books (abridged).

Actor's Theatre has turned to its heavy artillery to follow that act. Chip Decker, the ATC artistic director, is onstage for the third time in an (Abridged) capacity. He also contributes a ghoulish set design to the merriment, a torture-chamber dungeon calculated to make us feel at home in remedial literature. Gregory McGrath has flown in from Minneapolis to participate in his third reduction at Actor's Theatre.

Most importantly, Decker has wrapped his arms around his go-to Reduced director, Jeanne Woods, before she leaves town for Western Illinois University to chair the Theatre & Dance department. Quips, dopiness, shtick and irreverence fly by so quickly in Great Books (so do the books themselves a couple of times) that a seven-month interval between viewings was quite sufficient to make the whole evening seem fresh.

There's nothing quite as drop-dead outrageous here as the backwards Hamlet in Shkspr, but you'll still have a good time with the Great Books demolition of Don Quixote, and the show dwells at unexpected length upon the Trojan War epics of Homer and Vergil -- with fine effect, despite all the accuracies.

The length borrowed by the Iliad, Aeneid, Odyssey and Quixote skits pays off in zany dividends, since our trio of tutors is forced to go into hyperdrive, zipping through most of the Great Books syllabus in a frenetic lightning round.

Pacing in the Actor's Theatre production, already brisk, will no doubt quicken once Reduced virgin Lee Thomas gets his feet wetter. I wondered what possessed Woods to cast the cuddly Thomas as a high school athletics coach, but overall his chemistry with Decker and McGrath is surprisingly good.

That has been one of the consistent charms of the Reduced efforts Woods has directed. You can see everybody onstage trying to rev up the pace, retain spontaneity and have a good time. When the freewheeling spirit is working -- as when Thomas had Panza's donkey braying "Eeyore! Eeyore!" -- the fun is contagious.

In important ways, Tonya Shuffler's new comedy, Carrie Ann's Kiss, is a phenomenal accomplishment. Although our previous acquaintance with her is exclusively as an actress, Shuffler has an obvious gift for characterization and a keen ear for dialogue. Taking aim at a ripe target -- the cultish/cliquish/ultra-conservative craziness of a company very much in the mold of Mary Kay Cosmetics -- Shuffler relents in her satire long enough for us to develop real affection for some of the true believers.

More remarkable, Shuffler's maiden playwriting effort is rallying an impressive cast to the cause in its world premiere at Theatre Charlotte. Fresh from her triumphant role as organizer of The Body Chronicles, Donna Scott has returned to her delightfully wicked ways as Jacklyn Dabadie, staunch opponent of all enlightenment, innovation and liberalization at Carrie Ann Cosmetics. She is the contender we would most like to see not win the coveted Ruby Kiss at the annual convention, emblematic of the top salesperson at Carrie Ann.

Debadie is très formidable, sporting the ruby pin from last year's convention and taking honors hands-down as the most underhanded of this year's candidates. Scott is clearly in her element fomenting rebellion, rattling cages, and going over the tolerant CEO's head to get her way.

Scenic design rarely gets better at Theatre Charlotte than the translucence and chrome conceived by Jim Gloster -- along with a cunning Carrie logo. But it's Gloster the stage director who surprises nearly as much as Shuffler in his directorial debut.

The sheen of the set and the brio of the ensemble help to mask the key problems in Shuffler's script: clumsy opening, low voltage resolution and too little reality-testing with live audiences prior to its premiere. Once the five combatants are assembled, however, the conflicts and infighting at the heart of this story are a genuine delight.

Kiss contenders are nicely varied, including a pregnant incontinent housewife (Kate Leahey), a Goth renegade (Shuffler), a true Carrie Ann apostle (Chandler McIntyre), and -- sacrilege! -- a man (Mike Mihm). There are so many subplots and minor characters that it's easy to conclude that Shuffler had a tough time deciding whether she was writing a stage comedy or a screenplay.

The cavalcade of eccentricity allows Mark Scarboro, Tim Ross, Jill Bloede, Stacy Aswad and Darlene Black to shine in multiple roles. After reigning as the evil queen of Narnia at ImaginOn in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Catherine Smith now portrays the progressive queen of Carrie Ann.

All in all, a nicely crafted "mockumentary." Samples aren't free, but they're worth trying.

If we had worked it right, my wife Sue and I could have taken in eight of the 20 shows that ran at the Stoneleaf Festival of North Carolina Theatre, which ended this past Sunday. But we took our time before embarking last Friday and didn't arrive in Asheville until dinnertime, and we hit the road home before dusk on the final day.

Six shows were quite enough to convince us of Stoneleaf's quality, and we put it on our to-do list for next spring. Anyone who has been to Asheville, walked the downtown, or seen the area's theatre facilities can assure you there's very little that's off-putting or high fallutin' about this festival -- even if it is run by remote control from Raleigh by the North Carolina Theatre Conference.

On the contrary, there was a campfire warmth to Senator Sam, a one-man show featuring Gary Lee Smith as the avuncular Ervin in a Blowing Rock Stage Company presentation at the UNC Asheville campus. Nor could you beat the down-home flavoring of Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre's production of Hank Williams: Lost Highway, starring Randy Noojin as the boozing, abrasive, yet ultimately adorable country music legend.

Asheville's own shone brightly. I'd rate the oddball Anatomy of Melancholy, presented by P. O'Connor Puppets, as the equal of any puppetry I've seen. And the North Carolina Stage Company version of Stones in His Pockets, showcasing Scott "Tuna Christmas" Treadway, was better than the original production we saw in London.

Charlotte's improv troupes could take a lesson or two from the artistry of Raleigh's Transactors Improv Company, which we enjoyed late Friday night at a dive called BeBe Theatre. But my favorite discoveries at Stoneleaf were the Temple Theatre of Sanford and the wicked Martin McDonough comedy they offered, Lonesome West.

With ticket prices topping at $22.50 -- and temperatures never hitting 80 degrees -- Stoneleaf Festival is way cool and cheap. In a good way.

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