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Half-baked ThomThom

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Machine Theatre has trained an artistic shotgun at Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird and forced it to couple with a menacing band of nocturnal marauders plucked half-baked out of Samuel Beckett's imagination. The result is a work-in-progress by Matt Cosper, ThomThom (if that bird won't sing), that aspires to Joycean richness and slapstick silliness at the same time. Very Beckett indeed -- ­plus a musical score by Jon Lindsay.

ThomThom may also be objectively described as half-baked, since only Act 1 of the two-act tragicomic musical was presented as a latenight workshop production last weekend at CAST after performances of Master Class. Act 2 is scheduled to emerge from Machine's oven next spring. Ambiguity and inertia are the essence of absurdism, so we may never learn whether ThomThom is a Huck Finn sequel to Mockingbird or it's a deconstruct of the Gothic nocturnal climax of the novel when the mysterious Boo Radley saves Scout Finch's life.

The eccentric recluse and the budding actress are back in the darksome woods, either fleeing home or trying to reach it. Repeatedly, they encounter the sinister gang led by Cort, a surreal hobo who can be described as a compound of Vladimir and Estragon, the protagonists of Waiting for Godot, and Dickens' malevolent Bill Sikes. With CAST stalwart Robert Lee Simmons in the role, Cort is riveting.

Kate the Killer, played by Barbi VanSchaick in pirate garb, is constantly bickering with Cort and plotting to seize leadership of the marauding band. The less-evolved primates who answer to Cort -- or Kate -- are Lizzie Lies, a lascivious circus equestrian to judge by her costume (and lipstick), Savage Red, an aspiring cone-headed poet, and Heartless Thom, a gangly adolescent besotted with Scout. Think Jesus in a sock hat.

Fittingly, ThomThom was put provisionally on its feet at the CAST boxagon, where action can come at us swiftly from all directions without ever going anywhere. So far, through Act 1, that seems to be the deep magic in Cosper's design. So far, it's working.

There's a comical accretion as Cort & Crew continue to stalk and attempt to affright the unflappable Scout, played with tomboy pluckiness by Chloe Aktas. The plotting may crystallize into a concrete goal in Act 2, or it may dissolve amid the shifting tides of the band's internal politics. Even without Boo's protection, Scout seems indomitable. From a dramatic standpoint, the greatest suspense whipped up so far is whether Scout and Thom will connect or if they're fated to be a star-crossed Romeo and Juliet romance. Luke Pizzato is adorably pathetic as Thom with all the awkward adolescent accoutrements.

VanSchaick may be viewed as reprising her pirate antics from last season's Peter Pan at ImaginOn -- thicker accent, same soft children's villain spine. No, the greatest threat to the Scout-Thom consummation is Arthur "Boo" Radley, simmering, fiercely protective, and even mildly articulate, another definitive oddball performance by Robert Haulbrook.

Jenny Wright as Lizzie and Jeremy Shane as Red are perpetually diverting bottom-feeders, constantly echoing the master-slave dynamic that Beckett wove into Godot. Make-up by Cosper and VanSchaick is delightfully ghoulish, and Barney Baggett takes to the boxagon zestfully in his Charlotte directorial debut. Bring on Act 2!

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