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Southern Rapture has special meaning for Charlotte

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Reading the third draft of Eric Coble's Southern Rapture, I could tell that the world premiere at Actor's Theatre would likely be an exhilarating, crowd-pleasing success. Aside from a couple of bumps at the beginning and end of the script, Coble had smoothly transported Charlotte's Angels in America controversy to an alternate universe where the follies of politicians, religious zealots, the media, and Charlotte Repertory Theatre could all be scrutinized in the piercing glow of hindsight -- and tickled with some shrewdly gauged exaggeration.

What Coble told me was that, during his round of talks with people involved in the original 1996 dust-up, he came across an anecdote that became the idee fixe for the end of his comedy-drama. To better prepare audiences for his ending, Coble listened to feedback he received from reading stage performances at Actor's Theatre. That was why he altered the beginning of his script -- with just a bit of additional help from T.S. Eliot.

Marrying yourself to an idea in the midst of researching a story can be risky. Nor is it always wise for a playwright to trust the observations of actors who have barely held copies of their scripts in their hands for two hours -- or to trust audience members who have only heard a script but never seen a fleshed-out production.

Yet the Rapture synergy has worked beautifully, just as Actor's Theatre executive director Dan Shoemaker and artistic director Chip Decker hoped it would when they tapped Coble for the company's first commissioned new play. Where Coble's writing droops late in Act 2, Decker's fine direction turns the backstage action prior to the opening of "Rapture in America" into the strongest dramatic moment of the night. Conversely, Decker's confused direction just before intermission hardly blunts the brilliance of Coble's writing at all, and the infamous Good Morning America shouting match between Mayor Winston Paxton and World Stages artistic director Marjorie Winthrop caps a near-perfect Act 1 in screamingly funny style.

Decker puts forth a Herculean effort, augmenting his stage direction with set design, sound design, and production of a video prelude to contextualize the comedy. The multi-tasking obviously stems from a deep commitment to the project and only results in one oddity. An entranceway with a Gothic arch bisects the vaguely cosmopolitan set, yet the religious iconography remains subdued throughout the production, never once called upon to frame any of our world-class wackos. Or our angel.

Thanks to Decker's video, abetted by wildman Brett Gentile ensconced in an altogether incongruous Masterpiece Theatre mode, the premiere achieves a nifty takeoff. Part of the fun, as Coble adroitly apes the style of Tony Kushner's Angels, is watching half of the cast as they morph through triple and quadruple roles.

The two quads, Sheila Snow Proctor and newcomer Nathan Rouse, share the stage as Allissa Marquand -- sort of a Jane Q. Citizen role (plus clout) -- and Observer theater critic Simon Larisher, igniter of the homophobic bonfire. Proctor will reappear as Neila-Jean Geisy, the hapless actress destined to wear angel wings that are perpetually under construction; Laverne Jackson, dimwitted homophobe; and DA Candice Overmyer, seeking to shut Rapture down. Rouse follows a somewhat parallel path, returning as actor Emmett Whipple, the GMA host, and defense attorney Franklin McManus, petitioning for the show to go on.

At the heart of the story, we find Laura Depta as Marjorie and Tim Ross as Hizzoner. Decker definitely wants us to see the parallels here as both these antagonists are chugalugging Pepto throughout the crisis. Marjorie's predisposition toward drama doesn't work as well in the real world as it does onstage, so the protective "bubble" she tries to create around her besieged actors is always bursting. Ross's role is more starchy and comical as he mouths homophobic pieties, attempts to sell Marge on repertoire more akin to The Odd Couple, and attends queasily to Reverend DuPree's bloodthirsty prayer.

Depta may not get all the comedy mileage possible out of Marjorie, but she put a lump in my throat from the outset of the dramatic denouement. Besides, Joe Rux in a scurrilous hyperactive turn as World Theatre producing director Donald Sherman nearly balances the comical foibles of the theater crowd singlehandedly with those of the clergyman and his flock.

DuPree is certainly a piece of work in Jeremy DeCarlos's fiery, bible-toting portrayal -- but only a third of the superb gallery that DeCarlos presents. For he is also Mickey Stedman, the actor whose penis is front page news, and he is Anton Finewitz, the epic bard who wrote Rapture in America -- promising with hieratic nonchalance to shut down any production that dares to sheath his hero's genitalia. DeCarlos is equally devastating as the preacher and the playwright. We last see him as the vulnerable, exposed actor, quietly becoming as resolute and dignified as anyone else onstage.

This is a special production of a bold new work that has special meaning for Charlotte. Go and experience it.

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