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Reviews of The K of D; To Kill a Mockingbird; Black Light Magic: Halloween Dream; Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike

Tis the season to be spooked, awed, creeped and scared



While nobody would argue that the local theater scene is overly commercialized, our neighborhood supermarkets aren't as overrun in October and December as our playhouses when it comes to Halloween creepiness and Christmas uplift. Look around this week at Spirit Square, at Theatre Charlotte, at ImaginOn or at UpStage and on the streets of NoDa. 'Tis the season to be spooked, awed, creeped and scared.

At Duke Energy Theatre, Laura Schellhardt's The K of D is meta savvy about humankind's ancient impulse to gather together on a dark night, maybe huddle around a crackling fire, and tell stories to terrify each other — and ourselves. What's unusual here in this PaperHouse Theatre production is that company founder Nicia Carla does all the storytelling and plays nearly all the 17-or-so roles. The outright artificiality of this approach reminds me of another ghostly classic that played the Duke in 2008 and 2010, The Turn of the Screw. Just two actors played all in the roles in that Henry James spine tingler.

Taking us to a small Ohio town, with a spare set design by Jordan Ellis that evokes a pier jutting out onto a man-made lake, this story is pointedly not told by Charlotte McGraw, the girl who was traumatized by witnessing the death of her twin brother. Nobody else heard Jamie's last words when the twins kissed — and nobody ever heard another word from Charlotte's lips afterwards.

So here is where Schellhardt's subtitle, An Urban Legend, kicks in. The pack of preteens who ran with the twins trade spooky surmises about the connection of the kiss to Charlotte's muteness, and they speculate about the fatal power that may have been passed along from Jamie's lips to Charlotte's. Has Charlotte become tragically vulnerable because of her twin's death or preternaturally powerful? When the crude, unrepentant womanizer who ran Jamie down with his car moves in next door, the question is put to the test.

Aided by Sean Kimbro's unobtrusive lighting and sound design, Carla takes us smoothly from scene to scene, character to character, and mood to mood, funniest when she's shuttling among the variously goofy kids who stir up all the trouble when they aren't conjuring the campfire spookiness. Things get grimmer when we cross over to Charlotte's parents, the homicidal Johnny Whistler, and this unwanted neighbor's string of girlfriends.

Carla isn't alone onstage. More mute than our narrator is Chris Herring, modeling the nonverbal sounds that served as the twins' secret language as well as the sounds of such rural legends as a couple of frogs and — of course, in ghostly blue light — a heron. Director Matt Cosper with Glynnis O'Donoghue doesn't merely use Herring as an auxiliary soundman. On rare occasions, we hear his voice eerily echoing Carla's or calling out Charlotte's name. It's a voice we grasp as coming across a moonlit lake or across the misty borderland between life and death.

Over on Queens Road, To Kill a Mockingbird sports a few of the same elements you'll find at Spirit Square, including a group of kids who knock on a door they shouldn't, a young girl with an unseen correspondent and a violent nocturnal climax with spooky overtones. Yet there's a whole lot more at stake in Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as small town lawyer Atticus Finch takes up the lost cause of defending a black man against a rape charge in the Jim Crow South.

Director Charles LaBorde doesn't ideally stage the scene where Atticus faces down a vigilante mob in front of the town jail, nor does the moment when Atticus leaves the courtroom after his gallant defeat detonate with maximum impact. But LaBorde has a terrific professional-grade cast, and he uses them superbly. With Paula Baldwin handling the narration chores as Jean Louise (and LaBorde adding a little more purpose to her return to Maycomb, Alabama), the Christopher Sergel stage adaptation doesn't seem as lame as the last time it was reprised by Theatre Charlotte in 2006.

Bob Paolino chews some mean scenery as Bob Ewell, Tom Robinson's low-life accuser, every vulgar bigoted action serving to elevate Atticus. Yet the understated rectitude of the town hero gets a wonderfully effortless dignity from Dave Blamy. As the Finches' housekeeper, Corlis Hayes brings more comedy than most productions dare, and as Maudie Atkinson, the town's most progressive matron, Catherine Upchurch moved me each time she spoke up for Atticus to his motherless children.

All three of the kids are ImaginOn-ready, but I was more surprised by Tim Huffman's debut at the Queens Road barn. He gives Boo Radley all the strength, shyness, and strangeness you could ask for, with enough mountainous presence for Of Mice and Men. Nothing at all surprising about Devin Clark if you saw him earlier this year in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead: he's just the best Tom Robinson I've seen in Charlotte.

Unlike some other Omimeo Mime Theatre productions at ImaginOn, Black Light Magic: Halloween Dream is much more of a reset than a repeat. Katie Matter is an Omimeo protagonist for the first time as the Young Dancer who has the wild Halloween dream, and Lazaro Memije steps to the fore for one of the best audience participation segments I can remember, portraying a self-important Hollywood filmmaker in whistleblowing Harpo Marx style. Different adults will be plucked out of the audience at each performance to recreate the classic triangle of monster, damsel-in-distress, and muscular hero.

Another welcome break from the black light fantasia galumphs onto the Wells Fargo Playhouse stage when Ed Bounds joins the merriment as Dakota, an affable T-Rex who allows the Young Dancer to brush his teeth. Because I'd seen some of the puppetry wielded by the invisible ninjas before, one of the black light segments dragged a little for me. But for newbies, the oooohs and aaaaahs streamed constantly when lights were low – and the squeals of surprise and laughter poured forth with equal intensity during the mime shtick.

Of course, the full profundity of the Harpo whistleblowing segment will be lost on the small fry until someone explains to them that, once upon a time, there really was such a thing as silent film. Anticipating the popularity of this holiday confection, Omimeo has added an extra matinee this coming Sunday.

Anyone who has followed Dennis Delamar over the past three decades could be excused for thinking that he and arch-satirist Christopher Durang aren't a perfect fit. Indeed, in the current Actor's Theatre production of Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike, there are times when I feel Delamar is too mature and well-adjusted for what Durang has in mind. In his big Act 2 monologue as Vanya, Delamar isn't as fast-paced or furious as David Hyde Pearce was on Broadway extolling the simplicities of the 50s and decrying the callousness of the present.

Delamar's rambling rant comes from a more rational person, never quite striking me at the same time as the cri de coeur of a man who feels like he has wasted his life. Overall, that's okay, because Vanya is arguably Durang's wisest, most mature comedy. Delamar and director Chip Decker actually reach the depths of its wisdom as Vanya goes off, for if you glance away at his siblings, you'll perceive that, through the mystic magic of shared memories, he is bringing his family back together.

It's as a family that Jill Bloede as Sonia, Josephine Hall as Masha, and Delamar are perfection. Hall doesn't have the star quality Sigourney Weaver brought to Masha, yet her peevishness is more sisterly, and Bloede brought me to the verge of tears taking her first baby steps toward overcoming a lifetime of bitterness and frustration. As prophetic voodoo housekeeper Cassandra, Ericka Ross prefigures Vanya's outburst with some outrageous fulminations of her own, and as the aging Masha's boy toy, Brandon James makes Spike even more hilariously athletic than he was in New York.

Bloede's performance, by turns ridiculous or pathetic, best exemplifies the Chekhovian spirit that inspires Durang's title, but Delamar and Hall best personify the Disney strain that the playwright improbably mixes in. On the smaller Stonewall Street stage, Decker's set design actually feels more like the Seven Dwarfs' cottage than the imposing Broadway set – until you note the profusion of visual references to Chekhov's Seagull, Three Sisters, and Cherry Orchard wedged in.

One of the next door neighbor Nina's cunningly devised functions is to make Masha, dressed up as Snow White for a nearby costume party, appear more like the Wicked Queen by way of her undisguised jealousy. In her Charlotte debut, Anna Kelly magnifies Masha's absurdity by frankly idolizing her. More confounding still, she's more drawn to Vanya and his suppressed aspirations to be a playwright than she is toward the immensely shallow Spike. Poor Masha has been away too long in La-La Land to understand why. She couldn't be returning to her siblings' bucolic homestead at a better time.