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Devilish ministers and profiteers

Hell hath no fury like a classic scorned

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If you examine Arthur Miller's original playscript, you won't find any forest scenes in The Crucible. Yet the one recognizable constant in the scenery during Theatre Charlotte's current revival are the barren trees flanking the stage. Biff Edge's scenic design is just one of numerous willful eccentricities that make the freewheeling revelries at the Queens Road barn so fascinating and frustrating.

A certain amount of freewheeling imagination is welcome for those of us who are revisiting the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, courtesy of Miller, for the third or fifth time.

When Theatre Charlotte last produced the drama in 1988, director Lon Bumgarner freshened things by incorporating the woodland scene Miller added to the original script after its original New York opening in 1953. In that scene, John Proctor makes one last-ditch attempt to discourage the wanton Abigail Williams from her course of lust and vengeance.

In the years since the last Theatre Charlotte version, Miller has taken yet another pass at his masterwork, writing the screenplay for the 1996 film adaptation. So director Matt Cosper does indeed have additional forest material to choose from.

Cosper dips into the wild at the very beginning. Abigail and a pack of Salem girls have just been caught by Rev. Samuel Parris in a most compromising -- and ungodly -- position, conjuring after dark around a burning cauldron with Tituba, a colorfully superstitious Barbados woman. All that and nakedness, too.

The teens who have been discovered at their unholy pajama party are mostly possessed and manipulated by fear. Abigail learns to wield this weapon expertly once she regains her wits and spies her opportunity. She tyrannizes over the other girls and, intoxicated by the authority bestowed upon her at the witch trials, becomes the scourge of Salem as she brandishes her scepter of accusation.

Cosper seems to be hinting -- OK, shouting -- that there are opportunistic adults driving the mania who are possessed by devils of their own. First and foremost, the sanctimonious Rev. Parris. Beset by an ever-alert persecution complex, Parris is keenly aware that his daughter's presence at the pagan rites could threaten his tenuous position in Salem -- particularly since the girl was seen flying over a neighbor's barn before lapsing into a trance-like state. Once the finger of accusation has shifted from him, Parris vigilantly contrives to keep it pointed at his fancied enemies.

Worldlier demons possess Thomas Putnam, who has watched all of his children except one die soon after birth. As the wrongly traduced victims of the witch-hunt trudge off to jail and the scaffold, Goodman Putnam gobbles up their land and possessions.

Both of these evildoers undergo melodramatic disfiguration. Drew Harkey starts off overacting Parris' alarm in the first scene and morphs into rabid avenger when his little Betty arises and becomes one of Salem's chief accusers.

Not to be outdone, Chris Hicks devolves into a gleaming-eyed gargoyle with a diabolical laugh -- as if Miller's Putnam and Bram Stoker's Renfield were interchangeable. Easily the worst work I've seen from Hicks.

The wrongheaded scenery and overheated hysteria come close to capsizing some very fine work at the core of this drama. Unlike many leading men, Jan Notzon makes you believe that Farmer John is a reluctant leader -- making credible leaps to virtue, heroism and martyrdom. As his wife, Elizabeth Proctor, Lolly Foy accomplishes an equally impressive transition in overcoming her cold piety. When she tells us she counted herself plain, we don't demand a recount, and her prison reconciliation with Notzon is as touching as any I've seen.

Chemistry among the accusing girls is far better than their malevolent elders'. The struggle between Dowler Young as ringleader Abigail Williams and Kadley Ballard as the timorous Mary Warren has a spontaneous tautness to it, and Michelle Busiek's sensual take on Mercy Lewis adds an unexpected lascivious note.

Rev. John Hale, the first outsider on the scene, is arguably the most treacherously difficult role in the drama, the gem within the gem. Chris Hull shines brightly where many before him have lost their way. Counterbalancing Hull's nuanced portrayal, Alan England reduces Deputy Governor Danforth's thunderous judiciary authority to a bland porridge.

The world premiere of Michael Daugherty's new piano concerto, Deus ex Machina, last Friday was a triumph for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, guest soloist Terrence Wilson, and the Metrolina Model Railroaders of Belmont. Inspired by the great locomotives of history, Daugherty's new piece sports the flash and clatter of his previous Charlotte premiere, Metropolis, which was inspired by Superman.

One big difference emerged in the slow middle movement. At its core, Machina has the gravitas of a lengthy funereal procession, "Trail of Tears." Here Daugherty commemorates the 1,650-mile journey of "seven coaches painted black" from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, that carried the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln back to his birthplace for final burial.

While Wilson feelingly played a sustained dirge, touches of eerie wistfulness came from a bowed cymbal, a pair of oboes, and soft dose of "Taps" from the horns. Framing this affecting melancholy, Daugherty's outer movements radiated the pulsing rhythm of the rails -- most tellingly in the concluding "Night Steam," a paean to steam engine locomotives as they whistled their way to extinction.

Guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero didn't get CSO's British-American music celebration off to the most auspicious start. His reading of William Walton was stately enough in its lumbering gait, but such grandiose pomposity really demands larger instrumental artillery. It was after intermission that Guerrero showed his mettle.

Out in the orchestra level lobby, Belmont's railroaders nearly upstaged the music. Their massive exhibit wound trains and tracks through urban, small-town, and mountain landscapes. Grandeur mixed with humor -- some of it downright naughty -- if you looked closely enough. Overall, a dandy presentation.

Heading to a Charlotte Philharmonic concert on St. Patrick's Day was an ominous experience for someone who likes his music blarney-free. But I found guest soloist Vassily Primakov to have a winning way with Chopin -- and the From Russia With Love program assembled by maestro Albert E. Moehring boasted plenty of additional protein aside from the E Minor concerto.

Mikhail Glinka's "Russlan & Ludmilla Overture" provided a rousing start with the string section faring surprisingly well in the swift tempi. After intermission, we were treated to a cycle of orchestral sketches by the obscure Georgi Sviridov illustrating Pushkin's "Snow Storm." Dessert servings included a James Bond suite and a St. Paddy's pudding.

Primakov's touch was even better than his romantic phrasing, which lacked only the last measure of exquisite grace in the opening allegro. He improved in the larghetto and proved nimblest of all in the closing vivace, whose idiom he captured beautifully.

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