Arts » Performing Arts

Moliere Gets A Laptop

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Has it really been 12 years since Charlotte Rep took on the pride of French theater, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, a.k.a. Moliere? Yup, it was 1990 when a remodeled Spirit Square hosted a high-concept, high-tech version of Tartuffe that absolutely knocked me on my rump. Hotwired with video technology by director Randell Haynes, the assault on religious hypocrisy at Duke Courtyard Theatre coincided wickedly with the demise of PTL and Heritage USA. Now comes a Rep reimagination of Moliere's most celebrated comedy, The Misanthrope. Once again, Haynes is at the helm, and electronic gadgetry is once again running amok. No fewer than four screens are splayed across Frank Ludwig's ultramodern, ultracool set design. Video segments are either prerecorded by videographer Nathan Bezner or beamed to us live -- as many as two images on different screens supplementing the onstage actors -- via cameras wall-mounted upstage.

The onslaught of imagery and technology is oftentimes echoed by a raucous heavy metal soundtrack. Topicality of The Misanthrope may not be as obvious in 2002 as it was for Tartuffe in 1990, but Haynes's high concept constantly presses us toward contemporary contexts.

When the misanthropic Alceste castigates "that bold rascal who is suing me," our hero punches a laptop computer and a succession of images parade onto the video screens that look very much like Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn in his fair-haired days. By similar coincidence, a familiar Congresswoman's face pops onscreen when Alceste's disdain turns to crooked politicians and influence peddlers.

Whether it's the Eurotrash excesses of the costumes Bob Croghan has draped upon prudish Arsinoe and poetaster Oronte or the rap cadence layered onto some of Moliere's elegantly manicured couplets, we're repeatedly returned to Alceste's most sweeping denunciation. "What, in this shallow age, is not debased?" Under this hip, high tech barrage, these words ring as true in 2002 as when Moliere first uttered them onstage in 1666.

Haynes sticks with Richard Wilbur's 1955 verse translation, the gold standard among English versions. Graham Smith navigates the heroic couplets compellingly as Alceste, gliding over the rhymes so nonchalantly they sometimes seem to evaporate. Haynes and Smith both show fine judgment in distinguishing between the indignations of Alceste that should be accorded true dignity and the rash rages that are comical and ridiculous.

But Alceste must also defy logic. There's a wondrous volatility and an audacious unpredictability here that bear the trademark of Smith's best work.

Perhaps taking her cue from Celimene's striking crimson and gold outfit, Tamara Scott makes the coquette's garish extravagance regally seductive. Part of her charm resides in the sovereignty granted to her by her legion of admirers. Another is in an acid candor that chimes with Alceste's. Still another is in her coolly poised audacity which, measured against our hero's hot-headedness, usually gives her the advantage.

We see Scott at her best in her showdown with world-class backbiter and prude Arsinoe. The deliciousness of Katherine Harrison's malice, as she kindly informs Celimene of how righteously she's condemned behind her back, is surpassed only by her gradual, seething implosion when Celimene returns the favor.

Properly balancing our attitude toward Alceste has always been tricky business. That's precisely where this Rep revival is most triumphant. Best of all, this exquisite balance is achieved while tossing caution hilariously to the wind.

No company in town has leveled its attention on the Holocaust more often than Children's Theatre. As their current production of And Then They Came for Me clearly demonstrates, nobody does it better.

Subtitled Remembering the World of Anne Frank, James Still's multimedia play interweaves filmed interviews with two Holocaust survivors, Ed Silverberg and Eva Schloss, with live reenactments of their reminiscences. Silverberg, known as "Hello" in Frank's famed diary, was a young admirer of Anne's, three years her senior. Schloss was a more casual school chum, but she became Otto Frank's stepdaughter after the war.

The stresses and experiences that Silverberg and Schloss endured -- and the stratagems that enabled them to survive -- instantly bring Anne Frank to mind if you're familiar with her diary. Cementing the connection, readings from the diary are sprinkled throughout the 65-minute presentation along with personal recollections that add detail to Anne's portrait.

Anne Sartin's bleak set rings the stage with cruel stone and brutal barbed wire. And I'd swear those monstrous piles of discarded shoes didn't loom behind the lethal fences until lighting wiz Eric Winkenwerder conjured them when our protagonists arrived at Auschwitz.

Under Alan Poindexter's taut direction, showcasing stunning sound design from Gary Sivak and graphic death camp photos, this isn't Holocaust Lite. In fact, I'd seriously question Children's Theatre's recommendation, printed in its season brochure, that this material is suitable for ages 11 and up. The young girl sitting next to me in the front row was cowering in fear. One more Auschwitz photo, and I thought her pretty head might explode.

Mark Sutton was also fairly fearsome from Row A, standing at the lip of the stage spouting the Nazi party line as a Hitler youth. Otherwise, the characters were easy to empathize with.

Admirably focused and polished as always, Anthony Napoletano stars as Young Ed. Leslie Beckham delivers Young Eva's fears, urges and immaturity with an awkwardness I grew to like. Nicole Adkins rounds out the quartet of players as Anne.

It's a grim task acquainting children with horrors such as these. But as the barbarity of 9/11 reminded us, it's also a grim necessity. I'd recommend this lovingly prepared docudrama to theatergoers 13 and up. Certainly this is a slice of history that should be remembered.

Having spent a couple of years in Iowa, I can attest to the curious reverence that natives hold in their hearts for Meredith Willson's The Music Man. The 1957 hit may have left a few ruffled feathers on Broadway when it edged out the classic West Side Story for the Tony Award, but in the barnyards of Dubuque, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Sioux City, Music Man catapulted Willson to the top shelf of quintessential Iowans, right alongside Herbert Hoover.

Attitudes probably haven't changed in the three decades since I left the Writers Workshop in Iowa City. Although the aspiration may be questionable, there's no doubt that Willson captured the essence of Iowans and Iowa life in his old-timey music and in his effervescent lyrics and script. The ignorant stubbornness and the hayseed gullibility of the tribe are relentlessly exposed.

Nothing much happens in Iowa, and nothing much changes. That's why the visitation of flimflam musical instrument salesman Harold Hill upon the sleepy burg of River City is such a mixed curse. The fake professor can't teach the town's children how to play the gleaming band instruments he has foisted upon their parents, but he can bring the glorious notion of music into their arid lives.

The touring version of the recent revival chugged into Ovens Auditorium last week without the seal of approval from Actor's Equity. But with Susan Stroman's choreography recreated by Liam Burke and promising talents in the lead roles, union claims that audiences were being swindled turned out to be horse manure.

As the demure and brainy Marian, Carolann Sanita unleashed a panoramic smile every time her inhibitions began to melt -- sufficient cause for the crustiest traveling salesman to surrender his cynicism and wanderlust. Lacking about 15 years of the requisite crust for a credible Hill, Gerritt Vandermeer nevertheless proved to be an engaging triple threat, nimble on his feet while ably mixing Hill's blarney and treacle. Make that a quadruple threat. After the conventional curtain call, everybody came out brandishing brass instruments and playing the signature "76 Trombones."

By that time, Vandermeer's youth -- and the doldrums of Act 1 -- were dim memories. Music Man has more bite than you might remember. It's still a quaint lightweight, but this beautifully mounted edition reminded us of all Willson's prickly charms.

If you've ever seen the havoc wreaked by the Reduced Shakespeare Company upon the most cherished theater works in the English language, you're probably pre-sold on the current offering by Actor's Theatre at Spirit Square. Yes, that irreverent trio of Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor are running wild in the chaste pastures of Holy Writ, repackaging their patented silliness in The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged).

No sacrilege is beyond folks willing to bring us Othello as rap or Hamlet speeded up and played backwards. When Abraham is commanded by the Almighty to sacrifice his beloved firstborn Isaac, some wiseass with a barbecue apron wheels out a grill. And is that Moses wrangling with God about whether the proscription against adultery should really be included in the Ten Commandments? Funny, but it sure sounds like Bill Clinton.

So it goes for nearly two hours -- and two Testaments. Director Jeannie Woods knows the Reduced terrain very well. So do Dan Woods, Greg McGrath and Chip Decker, all of whom have done the Reduced Shakespeare and/or the Reduced American History before.

It's all true: Old man Noah had an ark. And Jeremiah was a bullfrog. *


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