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Medicine Show

Plus, NCDT's new season

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In a kookie, kaleidoscopic way, Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House is about medicine -- the kinds delivered by physicians, by herbalists and by laughter. Its heroine, young layabout cleaning lady Matilde, is living proof that laughter isn't always the best medicine. Her mom died laughing at one of her comical father's jokes, and he killed himself so quickly afterwards that she never found out what the joke was. By this absurd sequence, Matilde became the #1 comedian in her family. So instead of dusting or vacuuming, she quests tirelessly to fulfill her comical calling by concocting the perfect joke. In her native Portuguese.

This daydreamer is employed by a physician, Lane, so starchily preoccupied with her career of saving lives that she doesn't seem to live one of her own. In her comfort zone, the hospital, she bosses a whole team of nurses as easily as breathing, but at home, Lane can't quite summon the authority to tell Matilde to rise off her butt.

Lane's blood pressure and Matilde's paycheck are quietly nursed by clean-freak Virginia, Lane's sister. She finishes cleaning her own home at approximately 3:12 p.m. every day, with plenty more anality left in her tank. So she's all too happy to help Matilde out by sneaking behind her resented sister's back. Cleaning shields Virginia as effectively from life as the practice of medicine does for Lane.

If this situation sounds a bit static and enervated, the fine Actor's Theatre production may not entirely dispel your misgivings. Certainly a comedy that opens with a longish joke in Portuguese, followed by a second monologue from a priggish lady doctor, isn't setting any land speed records out of the gate.

But there are multiple reasons for declaring that The Clean House ultimately proves worth clinging to. Everyone who gets to see this show won't agree with me, yet I find evidence that Matilde develops mystical powers during her quirky quest. Toward the end of Act 1, you could say that the specters who appeared to us during Matilde's remembrances of her Brazilian parents have sprung to life.

We get lift-off when the actors who have portrayed the parents reappear as Lane's husband, Charles, and the impulsive, amorous, and ethereal Ana, the mastectomy patient who has swallowed his heart and soul as he performs the surgery. Once these two free spirits whisk into the center stage area, the thrust and alchemy are so powerful that I began to wonder which of the five actors has the tastiest role. All five are on loopy roller-coaster rides, that's for sure.

Adyana de la Torre performs the quasi conjuration with her customary Latina flair as Matilde, just a touch of ditziness drizzled onto her sensuality. Longtime Charlotte Rep mainstay Claudia Carter Covington slips into brainy Lane's journey toward enlightenment so effortlessly that I could believe she'd just finished starring in Eleemosynary the night before. Actually, it was 1990.

We get some truly startling performances, under Scott Ripley's surefooted direction, from Martin Thompson as Charles, Elyse Williams as Virginia, and Jorja Ursin as Ana. Spanning the hemisphere from Brazil to Alaska -- and from Ruhl's "metaphysical Connecticut" to Judaic midrash -- Thompson is more relaxed and likable than I've ever seen him onstage, an adulterer flying on pure spirit, impossible to condemn. Williams, so often decorous until her recent descent into Vivien Leigh's madness, is definitely adrift from glamour here, astoundingly wired.

The sweet dazzling glow of Ursin is even harder to fathom from a comedienne whose name I never thought I'd couple in the same sentence with luminous. Pray that her supply of Zoloft doesn't run out.

In the dialectic between intellect and intuition, good medicine and bad, Ruhl doesn't opt for easy formulas. Argumentatively, The Clean Room seems messy at first blush. Maybe the point of all her intricate workmanship is that it's healthier to laugh -- or wonder -- at the philosophic mess of life and destiny than trying to clean it up.

North Carolina Dance Theatre launched its 2007-08 season over the weekend with a double-barreled salvo. The evening fare, Manhattan Moves South, challenged adults with edgier, more modernistic music and choreography than we often see filling the Belk Theater stage. With Kati Hanlon Mayo gone and Mia Cunningham ailing, you might have worried that NCDT might be caught off-stride.

No, as the performance of Alvin Ailey's Night Creature quickly affirmed, the company is reloading, not rebuilding. The women, with Seia Rassenti and Kara Wilkes newly aboard, haven't lost a step. Nor has Traci Gilchrest, sizzling in her pairings with Sasha Janes. But I'd have to say, with Joseph Watson and Ian Grosh added to a lineup that has been impressively fortified over the past two seasons, the NCDT guys are better equipped for Ailey -- and Ellington -- than ever before.

We need to allow the company a rewind on Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs, one of the most treacherous ballroom workouts you'll see. Fortunately, the abortive moves never wrecked the flow. Gilchrest still triumphed in the tipsy comedy of "One for My Baby" paired with Grosh, gracefully executing a blind backwards leap, and Wilkes was sensational in her debut showcase with Jhe Russell, "All the Way."

Ah, but Alessandra Ball, subbing for Cunningham in "Forget Domani" while dancing the lead in the afternoon ballet, seemed understandably tentative with Randolph Ward. And why was Nicholle Rochelle being punished? Amid a bouquet of Oscar de la Renta evening gowns, she was conspicuously colorless in a grey dress -- drearily draped in long sleeves for "Strangers in the Night," while the other six ladies sported bare shoulders.

Funkiest of all was Dwight Rhoden's new Artifice, an abstract harlequinade revolving around Russell as a Chaplinesque ringmaster. Much more polish all around on this presentation. Rochelle especially showed to better advantage, hair down and those long luscious limbs liberated.

On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Ball and Vladimir Lut danced the title roles in Beauty & The Beast, a brooding chunk of Tchaikovsky, carved into ballet by Mark Diamond, that was as challenging for the anklebiters as Artifice had been for their elders. Lut was downright scary gesticulating over Beauty's prostrate father (Diamond) in the opening scene and Ball -- seemingly as loose and light as eiderdown each time she was lifted -- was haunted by rather boring visions at the haunted castle while she awaited her horned host.

Now Pyotr Illych never obliged Mother Russia with a B&B ballet, but that didn't deter Diamond, who recruited the Pathètique symphony to the cause. Once we heard the swelling theme of the opening adagio -- out of sequence after the waltzing allegro con grazia -- happiness and bliss became inevitable as the principals intertwined. Five young members of NCDT2 distinguished themselves in substantial roles, and a ladybug was invited to the wedding, both marks of happy ending.

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