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Dysfunction Junction, TX

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If you've seen Bug and August: Osage County, you already know that playwright Tracy Letts is equally acclimated to surrealism and naturalism, with a wicked attraction to the primal struggles -- and the irrational demons -- that lurk at the core of American life. Killer Joe, written long before either of Letts' greatest hits, is closer to Bug in tone, scale, and its propensity for violence. Glimmers of the acutely observed family politics of Osage do peep through, with a more potent, more dÈclassÈ dousing of Letts' battery-acid satire.

The Carolina Actors Studio Theatre production boasts three of the best performances we'll see in Charlotte this year as ne'er-do-well lush/drug dealer Chris Smith hires Killer Joe Cooper to bump off his own mother for the insurance dough, yielding up his sister Dottie as a retainer in lieu of the required up-front cash for the rub-out. When it all goes hopelessly wrong -- because Chris is so gullible (and, psssst, so hot for his sister) -- director Tony Wright can call upon the best fight choreographer in town to stage the explosive denouement: Wright himself.

Robert Lee Simmons gives perhaps his freshest performance since another title role in Mr. Marmalade two years ago, cold and lethal, yet with a genuine soft spot for Dottie. Ambivalent doesn't adequately describe all the broken-glass fragments of Chris's character, yet the dangerous fragment coheres admirably to the rest in a boozy, exuberant portrayal by Matt Cosper that makes me want to see him devour some O'Neill. The delicate tracery of Dottie's ambivalence as Killer Joe's chosen virgin/concubine leans toward Tennessee Williams, but beware the volcano beneath as Cody Harding slips into the nightwear.

Wright gets the softest, most nuanced work I've seen from Matthew Corbett, as Chris's dumb and greedy dad, but Wright's magic stops just short of perfection in two minor respects. As Sharla, the siblings' unloving stepmother, Cindy Kistenberg projects a rather narrow vein of seedy meanness, shortchanging us on her immodest sluttiness and her calculating cunning. And while Wright delivers some of the most head-banging violence I've seen on a Charlotte stage, he and CAST are guilty of the same transgression that marked the Actor's Theatre production of Bug. More blood and broken furniture, please.

But if you like your Sam Shepard served up raw and hot -- or a hearty laugh at Texas vulgarity now that Bush 43 is back there -- Killer Joe is one killer entertainment. Letts is the real deal, the new top gun of the Southwest.

Back in the days of LBJ, Nixon, Vietnam, and the Chicago 8, members of my generation would hoot -- between draws on prime contraband substances -- at the notion that youthful war protesters were somehow sympathetic supporters of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietcong. Yet the members of Actor's Lab, in the company's SouthEnd debut at the Charlotte Art League, give new meaning to guerilla theatre in AmerWrecka, a hippy call-to-arms by playwright-director-acting guru J.D. Lewis.

They don't make entrances in this bring-back-the-spirit-of-Kent-State agitprop so much as file in. God alone has the luxury of nonchalantly sauntering in from behind a chain-link fence onto the sloped runway that bisects the funky stage. But since He's none other than Jimi Hendrix, Electric Lady Land goeth wherever in heaven that He shall tread.

Written in the wake of Bush's 2004 reelection, AmerWrecka resurrects the four slain Kent State students as angelic emissaries, charged by Hendrix to inspire four Bush subjects to ignite a new revolution -- on behalf of everything right that Bush stood against. Joining them on their mission are the joyous jolts of the Woodstock, Flower Power music that flowed inside their veins alongside the hash and LSD.

Led by Kellin Watson as the slain Sandy Scheur, the singing is at least as intoxicating as the yes-we-can propaganda. My problem with AmerWrecka is that, at an hour and 26 minutes, the song list crowds out some of the unfinished business in Lewis' script. Scheur, Allison Krause, Jeff Miller, and William Schroeder enlist a disconsolate fireman, an exotic dancer, a lesbian Latina chef, and a Republican congressional candidate to martyr themselves for the cause.

It's the authenticity of their conversion and the substance of their convictions where we're shortchanged as the latterday martyrs dig in for a hunger strike. Songs come one after another too quickly toward the climax. As the quartet's suffering begins to resemble a voluntary crucifixion, we're focused on the possibility of Bush's capitulation rather than the grievances the strikers are willing to die for.

But there's no doubting the power of Lewis' style and the spirit that his actors bring to it. Cher Ferreyra as the lesbian chef, Kevin Patrick Murphy as the fireman, Keleigh Thomas as the exotic dancer, and Pam Galle as the congressional hopeful all burn with an antiwar militancy that transcends self-contradiction. Singing "Woodstock" at the beginning and end of the show and deliciously offering free love to the fireman, Watson upstages her classmates, but Jamie Robinson, Allison Flanagan, and Steven Buchanan are all eminently worthy of their gladrags.

Chris Crutchfield as the loosey-goosey Hendrix isn't the only comic relief. Perpetually grasping a Pabst Blue Ribbon, Kevin Alderman spouts redneck nonsense through an alcoholic haze. David Holland and Rebecca Thomason are the outrageously lampooned Bushes -- both moonlighting as angels in the empyrean. Chris Bretscher as a slick TV reporter keeps it starchily bottled up until the inhumanity of it all finally causes her to erupt.

Storefront theatre has returned to Charlotte after an absence of 20 years. Get it while it's hot.

Fortunately, it doesn't matter how bad High School Musical really is. By Sunday afternoon, the irresistible tide of word-of-mouth mania had filled Halton Theatre up to the last three rows of the balcony. That's impressive blind devotion when you consider that most of the current CPCC Theatre production doesn't measure up to last year's area premiere at Fort Mill High School.

Until director Tom Hollis mustered his mammoth cast together for the final triumphs of math whiz Gabriella Montez and roundball ace Troy Bolton -- as they venture outside their cliques, landing the roles of Romeo and Juliet (and each other) ­-- the acting on stage sputtered nearly as often as the anemic CP sound system. Ashley Bradley as Gabriella and Corey Cray as Troy are both promising talents, but neither gave much evidence of being directed at all until way, way late into Act 2. Compared with their Fort Mill counterparts, Patrick Chittenden and Tierney Lanhem were lackluster from beginning to end as the evil Evans Twins, Ryan and drama queen Sharpay.

After all these years in melodrama, Amy Laughter makes the most of her first crack at a musical as the snobbish, eccentric (but Disney lovable) Ms. Darbus, the school drama teacher. That's little consolation for music aficionados during the long trek to the closing "Megamix." Until Children's Theatre tries to salvage this rockin' dreck, aficionados of quality should donate their seats to innocents below the age of six. None of that horde seemed to have been harmed by the experience.

There was a Moby Dick aspect to David Frost's quest to squeeze the warm milk of sorrow from the desiccated breast of disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon. But I'm not sure that the modicum of success that rewarded the whaler in Frost/Nixon really bestowed a heroic aura upon the epic quest. We clearly saw, as Alan Cox tried to harpoon Stacy Keach, that this was a TV talkshow host trying to redeem a trivialized career, pitting himself against a resilient opportunist who had run out of resurrections.

Keach gave Nixon a thick blockishness that made his bloviating during the 1977 interviews sound as natural as breathing. The fundamental mystery of the man -- the coexistence of his rabid paranoia with his insouciant sense of privileged invulnerability ­-- remained unsolved. But from what I can tell, not having seen the movie yet, Keach's attempt at untangling the conundrum of Nixon's insecurities is very different from Frank Langella's.

That's a good thing, and a good reason why it was worth catching Keach.

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