On the few occasions that we get a glimpse into the wings, the outside streets seem to be ablaze in the future world of Omnium Gatherum. Or perhaps our hostess Suzie and her provocatively chosen dinner guests have all been cast into hell.
If so, God has taken political correctness to extremes -- or adopted the fathering practices of today's indulgent parents. For the guests are served the choicest cuisine in this hell amid elegantly posh surroundings, none of them repelled by Suzie's wholesome Martha Stewart-like hedonism.
Nor do most of them seem aware that they are beyond the fears of mortal flesh, visibly cowering when copters sweep overhead and forcibly restraining the unruliest guest when he threatens to misuse his fork. So I conclude that this opulent paranoia bunker conceived by playwrights Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros is nothing less than the Promised Land that President George W. Bush has been leading us to since 9/11.
Yes, some would call that hell.
We are truly fortunate to have Robert Lee Simmons reprising the role of Mohammed, the terrorist that Suzie serves up as a dessert surprise. He was, in fact, the original Mohammed at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where Omnium Gatherum was the talk of the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2003. Simmons' contributions, however, begin much earlier in the soirée.
Simmons has been instrumental in recreating the revolving stage that helped make the premiere so exciting. It doesn't revolve constantly at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre as it did in 2003. Or as slowly.
We usually get those revolves when the sound of copters or aircraft hovers overhead. That's particularly useful since all of the 40 seats surrounding the stage in the CAST arena are front row seats just slightly above floor level. Lacking the luxury of a revolving stage, we'd be staring at the backs of half the diners all evening long.
They're all worth seeing in this nicely cast production, if not universally recognizable as celebrity staples. Aside from pre-incarceration Martha, Terrence is modeled after the combative Cambridge-schooled columnist Christopher Hitchens, Roger is a caricature of macho novelist Tom Clancy, and Khalid is a fairly nuanced portrait of Arab intellectual Edward Said, who committed the faux pas of dying the same week that Omnium opened Off-Broadway.
Others around the table include Lydia, a militantly feminist vegan who is not as devoutly lesbian as Roger thinks. Go ahead and suspect that Julie's presence at dinner is tokenism. She's an African-American who is veering away from liberalism as far as her evangelical preaching will carry her. Finally, in the end chair, there's Jeff, a somewhat reticent joe who is not average in one startling respect -- which Suzie has inadvertently neglected to mention to the gathering.
No, she is not quite the perfect hostess. Suzie presides -- sometimes with disarming cluelessness, sometimes with an insensitivity worthy of a CEO -- over conversation that skitters unpredictably from whether a perfectly dressed salad needs more dressing to the hot button issues of the Middle East. From Mahatma Gandhi to pass-me-the-relish.
Yet Suzie also stands at the Western side of the spectrum in the conversational clinches, exemplifying a culture so secular, rationalized and materialistic that the new iPhone and American Idol contestants are legitimate news items. Contrast that with the sultry East, so irrationally infused with hatred and religious dogma that jihadist self-annihilation is extolled with the reverence we might reserve for NBA stardom.
CAST artistic director Michael R. Simmons, Robert Lee's dad, witnessed the 2003 premiere of Omnium in Louisville. He directs authoritatively here, capturing the incongruities, the absurdities and the deadly overhanging seriousness to perfection.
Newcomer Rachel Watkins didn't take long to find the neurotic breeziness of Suzie, peppered just lightly with petulance under stress. Hugh Loomis has a forthright pugnacity as Roger, the most enthusiastic proponent of capitalism at the table, while Michael Harris nicely calibrates the onset of inebriation into the character arc of the iconoclastic Terrence.
Cynthia Farbman gives her most impressive performance yet as Lydia, the nettlesome vegan who spicily surprises. Measuring up to Julia's righteous oratory, Lillie Oden cuts loose with the most godawful rendition of "The Greatest" you are ever likely to hear, disemboweling any stereotypes you might have about Afro vocal aptitude.
Ironically, the only weak link in the cast is the elder Simmons, who projects Khalid's decency and dignity beautifully -- perhaps the only person at the table who clearly perceives what has gone wrong in the East and the West. But he needs to lighten up on the accent.
I saw the younger Simmons at Louisville when he stepped into the role of Mohammed with just two days' notice before Omnium opened. Three years later, this terrorist is a shade less volatile and explosive than the one I remember -- but noticeably more humanized. A portrait that I found more frightening.
The biggest surprise for me was walking into CAST, sitting up close to their revolving stage, and finding that Omnium hadn't lost a whit of its original relevance and power. Like those ambiguous lurid lights in the wings, it's still hellishly hot.
CPCC Opera Theatre presented a sumptuously designed and costumed Die Fledermaus over the weekend. The largesse extended to the hearty length of CP's offering, not always a welcome gift. Beguiling melody gushes forth perpetually in Johann Strauss's buoyant score, but the fourth recital of "Chacun a Son Gout" is at least two too many by my estimate.
Director Rebecca Cook-Carter compounded the tedium by electing to perform an English version without supertitles. That ensured that most of the sung lyrics -- say about 80 percent -- would remain unintelligible.
Hey, when the Metropolitan Opera adds supertitles to its English version of Magic Flute and beams it to every big market in America, you can't keep your head in the sand. The language barrier wasn't as daunting in Act 3 -- after 11 p.m. -- when spoken dialogue predominated and Kevin Campbell trotted out his physical comedy shtick as the drunken jailer.
The Viennese comedy peeped through more intermittently in the first two acts. Jenn Crawford was solid as the leading coloratura, Rosalinda, but she was upstaged by the glittery Sarah Nifong, who hit her high notes less effortfully as Roz's chambermaid, Adele. Peter Barton made a stylish debut in the title role.
Joyous regression is running amuck at ImaginOn as Children's Theatre brings a musical adaptation of Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business to the McColl Family Theatre. My suspicion is that the chief instigator of the rampant juvenility is director Jill Bloede, since more of the hilarity lurks between the lines of Joan Cushing's script than within.
Gwen Edward makes a notable debut as JBJ, her little heart forever on her sleeve as she undergoes an epic show-and-tell kerfuffle. Susan Roberts Knowlson as Lucille has the choicer comic bits, her princess pretensions climaxing in an operatic apotheosis. No less memorable is Vito Abate's show-and-tell episode as Crybaby William, a catastrophe that will convulse pet-haters everywhere.
By comparison, Mark Sutton as Meanie Jim and Tanya McClellan as That Grace are tethered to the normal disciplines of acting, though both are clearly having fun. Gina Stewart is the only member of the all-adult cast to be shortchanged, confined exclusively to adult roles -- Junie's teacher and her grandma.
Cushing's nine songs are as family-friendly as her script, and Ron Chisholm's choreography is a hoot. Getting tickets may be a desperate matter, but worth the try.
A Big Deal -- When I proclaimed, back in October, that Tony Award diva Cherry Jones would be coming to Charlotte with the national tour of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, a yowl of protest bounced back from the PAC into my inbox. No, by the time the ecclesiastical drama reached Belk Theater in April, somebody else would be onstage as Sister Aloysius, wielding her crusty accusations of pedophilia at a Bronx Catholic school. Finding no such qualifiers at the tour Web site, however, I stuck by my guns.
So who was right? Both of us, as it turned out. Playbill.com and TheaterMania.com reported last week that Jones would extend her run with the tour to include engagements in Charlotte (April 17-22), Tampa (April 24-29), Baltimore (May 1-13) and Philadelphia (May 15-20).
It's true: We're getting Shanley's Cherry -- and I'm a legitimate prophet.
A Little Deal -- Up at Davidson College, there are two more performances of Tiny Ninja Theatre's Hamlet. It runs through Thursday at the 900 Room of the Alvarez College Union, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $20.