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Santa serves cocktails

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Whether it's the automotive theming of Autobahn or the rustication for Foxfire, scenic makeovers of the Carolina Actors Studio Theatre lobby, bar, and loo have been the centerpiece of the company's experiential style. Occasionally, there have been pre-show activities in the tavern space that have nearly risen to the level of theater. Decked out in gypsy finery, Corlis Hayes once offered me a palm reading and a slice of Fuel pizza.

There's no nearly about the current production of John Patrick Shanley's Savage in Limbo, an early pre-Moonstruck, pre-Doubt script set entirely at Scales, a Bronx bar. All of the action is staged at CAST's watering hole, with the audience ringed around its margins. On barstools. There is a pre-show -- vocalist Jay Garrigan on the night we attended -- and the customary makeover is still in evidence: signage from beers of the world up to the ceiling.

Limbo has a naturalistic edge that will startle anyone who is familiar with Shanley exclusively through Doubt. Here he hasn't quite taken the plunge, exemplified in Moonstruck and Italian American Reconciliation, where he embraced the notion that ethnicity is a kind of myopic mania. Earlier in the '80s, it sure looks like Shanley was gazing over that chasm.

Schizoid craziness upstages ethnicity here. April White, who has veered from the nunnery to the sauce, is actually certifiable. But the other four characters are conflicted enough not to realize it -- or so cynical and/or self-absorbed not to care. Remember, this is New York.

All the characters are 32 according to Shanley's script. Somehow, Denise Savage is still a virgin at that age despite a rabid libido and a total lack of impulse control. Linda Rotunda has lived up to her reputation as class slut since early high school, but now finds herself yearning for intimacy, stability and -- yikes -- maternity. Her estranged boyfriend, Tony Aronica, is an oafish stud who has recently discovered the gray matter between his ears, still struggling to put his discovery into words. Murk rounds out the group, a surly, burly bartender with a secret Santa streak.

Plenty of volatility and mutability here -- hilarious when you recall how often these humble folk agonize over their ability to change. At a given moment, the women seem ready to form a sorority; at others, they're poised to gouge each other's eyes out over Tony. The environmental staging and the excellent cast, deftly maneuvered by director Paige Johnston Thomas, triumph over the excess looniness of the text.

Johanna Jowett solves the riddle of Denise by turning herself into a human pressure cooker on the verge of explosion. We haven't seen this savage side of Jowett since her Shedevil sparked Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage in 2003. Her long self-imposed exile has relegated her to the pallid realms of Charlotte Squawks, Jackalope Jack's karaoke, and multiple car dealer commercials. Plugged back into her primal voltage, even Jowett's jubilant moments are tinged with menace.

Barbi Van Schaick, moonlighting after her daytime gig in the Children's Theatre revival of The Velveteen Rabbit, has the Italian patois of Linda perfectly gauged, beginning with the prescribed pronunciation of virgin as "version." A pushover all of her life -- with, one suspects, a mean left hook. Sarah Provencal gives April a spacey, sedated aura with occasional glimmers of her teen sublimity.

Tony and Murk are an interesting study in contrasts. As Tony, John Cunningham is wide-eyed with confusion, itching for change, yet wary of commitment. One might assume a cynical sleepiness from Chris Walters as Murk, until you look closer and find the seething stillness of someone who has it all figured out. Yet he's willing to change his personality -- or his life -- in the blink of an eye.

Belly up to Limbo and you will find the underbelly of urbanity. Your ticket doubles as a coaster, and you will not be bored.

All is bright in the Sugarplum world of local Yuletide reruns and revivals. NC Dance Theatre is fielding a fresh lineup of Claras for the Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux setting of The Nutcracker, Jasmine Perry quite adorable on opening night in a timeshare with Ellie Firth. Meanwhile, last year's Fritz, Nicholas Wilson, has graduated to the full-time role of Nutcracker Prince.

Tracy Gilchrest opened again as the Sugar Plum Fairy with Addul Manzano as her dashing cavalier. Gilchrest will occasionally cede her tiara to Anna Gerberich, who demonstrated that it will rest on good toes in a scintillating performance as the Snow Queen and the principal Rose.

Most encouraging was the Belk turnout on opening night with all the balconies as robustly populated as the orchestra in a tough economic year. Those candy-colored PSA's on local TV must be working.

The Velveteen Rabbit alumnus Steven Ivey is directing the latest Children's Theatre revival at ImaginOn, and his Skin Horse wisdom seems to be rubbing off on his new-generation cast. OK, Ashby Blakely cannot eclipse Ivey's mastery of the Skin Horse-Toy Train-Doctor trifecta, but this may be the most moving version of the Scott Davidson script I've seen.

Part of the special nursery magic emanates from Leslie Anne Giles, who projects the wabbit's yearnings to be cherished and real as well as anyone we've seen in the title role. What's special is the unreal toy façade she layers on along the way to achieving her wish. Nearly equal is the contribution Stephen Seay makes as The Boy, ebullient and winsome as the bunny's owner with the thinnest overlay of dimwittedness. So the gulf between being a toy -- or even being a real rabbit -- and being human is never quite bridged. Like the gulf between any two creatures.

Joe Rux compares quite nicely with the lineage of Crumpets who have disclosed The Santaland Diaries at Actor's Theatre over the years. After Joe Klosek's energetic romp through the misadventures of a New York newcomer in the cap-and-bells of a Macy's Christmas elf, Rux's snarky read gives us back the dryness we remember in Hank West's and Mark Scarboro's portrayals. Pacing and comedic timing are both finely calibrated, and Rux mingles deftly with the audience, fulfilling director Chip Decker's cabaret-style remake.

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