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South of the border sizzlers

What's happening out of town

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While we gear up for the annual onslaught of SpeedWeeks and the Co-Cola 600, arts lovers in South Carolina will find ample consolation at the finest performing arts festival in the New World, Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston. Torn between two worlds? This year, cultured Charlotteans can merely ease over the border to Rock Hill, where the Create Carolina arts festival takes its opening bow at Winthrop University.

Part staged readings of new work and part intensive Maymester for students, Create Carolina @ Winthrop also has sly ambitions of becoming a Southern-fried Sundance, where indy filmmakers will flock to show their latest footage.

Polly Adkins, a two-time CL Best Actress here in Charlotte, returns to her Winthrop roots to spearhead the theater component of Create Carolina and line up many of the guest speakers for the workshops, lectures and seminars now parading across campus through May 29. Charles Randolph-Wright, an Adkins student in York County before moving on to Duke University, New York and Hollywood -- and screenwriting stints with Showtime, HBO and Disney -- is anchoring the cinematic action.

It all happened when Randolph-Wright, on the heels of his 2005 directorial debut with Preaching to the Choir, was being honored at Winthrop's annual Medal of Honor ceremony. The presentation is done in gala Kennedy Center style with a profusion of performing arts presentations: jazz band, dance and of course theater figured in the mix.

"Create Carolina is mostly Charles Wright's baby," Adkins told me. "When he came to the Medal of Honor awards ceremony a couple of years ago, that's when he saw all the diversity at Winthrop. He was so surprised -- I don't know why -- because I guess when he was here, it was a girls school. So that's when he turned to the president and said, 'This would be a great place for a festival.' Because he had entertained that idea at Duke. And the president said, 'Let's do it.'"

Onstage, Adkins will take a lead role as a psychiatrist in Medal of Honor Rag, directed by Randolph-Wright at Johnson Theatre. Charlotte native Chandler Parker co-stars as Vietnam War vet DJ, a troubled black soldier decorated in combat who finds adjustment to civilian life a more difficult battle -- in the wake of an unpopular war. The psychiatrist's role was written for a man in Tom Cole's 1976 script. Adkins will be the first female to do it, May 25-26 at 8 p.m. and June 2 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Parker also has a history with R-W. Preaching to the Choir aficionados will no doubt recall the actor's portrayal of Shitface.

If you'd like to toss questions at the director and cast, Randolph-Wright will lead talkbacks after the evening performance on May 26 and the matinee on June 2. Very likely, you'll encounter the same suspects informally in the Johnson lobby at the opening reception after the May 25 performance.

Talkbacks are also planned after the staged readings of The Granny Brigade, a musical comedy in progress by Jonathan Davidson. Underscoring the war theme of this year's edition of Create Carolina, Davidson's script is based on the real-life Granny Peace Brigade, elderly crusaders who were arrested in New York when they attempted to enlist in the Armed Forces as a form of protest against Bush's war in Iraq.

Davidson, who will also lead Create Carolina's seminar on documentary filmmaking on May 19, was apparently inspired by his own action footage. Adkins has seen it.

"It's very funny," she confides, "because they sing songs like 'Blowing in the Wind.' It's a group of women that are just marvelous. Some of that [film] will be shown right before we do the reading. One of the real-life grannies, I think, is coming down here to be in the reading. So that will be fun."

Those readings, also at Johnson Theatre, are scheduled for May 31 and June 1 at 8 p.m. General admission seats are $10, with senior and student tickets at $8. Prices for the fully staged Medal of Honor are slightly steeper, $15 general admission and $10 student/senior. Call 803-323-4014.

Screenings at Tillman Auditorium, however, are absolutely free. Create Carolina junkies can get their second Parker fix at The Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell on May 18 at 8 p.m. The futuristic flick takes us to the year 2097, two decades after a nuclear apocalypse. Our hero Tex Kennedy (writer/director Kevin Wheatley), two robotic ex-Secret Service agents (Parker as Yul), and a mythical female cannibal journey to find a famously dangerous area known as the "Threshold of Hell" to gain access to a radio tower to unite the survivors of the apocalypse.

Davidson, appearing as Javier Castro, observes: "This is the worst place that God ever puked up."

Come back again, and you'll see Davidson's handiwork as a producer of Shot in the Dark, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2002. Featuring Adrian Grenier, who has gone on to star in HBO's Entourage, the documentary chronicles the actor/director's search for his real father, John Dunbar, who left when Grenier was still a baby. The piece will be shown at May 19 at 8 p.m.

For the complete festival schedule through June 2, go to www.createcarolina.com.

What else is cookin' south of the border? Well, Shakespeare Carolina recently came back to life on Main Street in Rock Hill with a production of Taming of the Shrew, featuring John Hartness as Petruchio. Best remembered as the managing director of Off-Tryon Theatre Company, Hartness and Chris O'Neill will bring a Queen City Shakespeare Festival to Theatre Charlotte, beginning with Shrew, evenings at 8 p.m., June 21-23 and 27-30.

Hamlet enters on July 19-21 and 25-28. Bard Pass packages for $25 get you admission to both productions. Otherwise, it's $15 apiece or $10 for students and seniors at shakescar@gmail.com.

Last week, my wife Sue and I took in some very toothsome dinner theater at the Inn at Baxter Restaurant and Tavern, where Terry Roueche's Salon Theatre Company presented a trio of playlets between courses. Bill Mazzella and Brandy Faulkenberry performed admirably on a makeshift 8'x8' stage in a couple of snips from Ugly Art, which BareBones Theatre Group premiered in 2001, and "But I'm French!" from a BBTG 24-Hour Play Project.

Keep a lookout for Roueche and his Salon, especially if he resurfaces with any more of his comedy inventory at Baxter. A steal of a meal-deal at $45.

Correction: Due to a last-minute substitution, our review of Charlotte Symphony's All-Tchaikovsky concert, published on May 2, cited the wrong performer in the Fourth Symphony's canzona. The erroneous passage should have read: "I much preferred the forlorn laments of bassoonist Lori Tiberio." I regret the mistake -- not to mention rushing out of the house without my binoculars!

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