Arts » Performing Arts

Spooks in the Attic

Barebones turns the Screw

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Unless you've carefully scrutinized the credits of the old Columbo TV show -- and retained the information for a pathologically long time -- you've probably never heard of playwright Jeffrey Hatcher. But the folks at BareBones Theatre Group have not only heard of the man, they seem to have been mightily impressed.

Back in April, BBG presented Hatcher's Three Viewings, a curious suite of monologues set in a funeral parlor with a penchant for O'Henry neatness and brittle sentimentality that was less agreeable to my taste than the performances. Now with impeccable timing, they have premiered Hatcher's Turn of the Screw, an adaptation of Henry James's famed ghost story, opening at the Afro-Am Attic Theatre on Halloween.

Just two actors are used for the five central characters, Krista Stilley and Chad Calvert, who also directs. A young unnamed governess narrates in the original novella, presented in journal format like so many other famed Gothic tales. Hatcher adds an outer frame, a narrator who sets the tone, introduces the inexperienced governess, and returns after her catastrophic tenure at an English country house to tie some of the loose ends together.

Sitting in a deep mauve armchair for his narrating chores, Calvert has some of the painstaking air of Cyril Cusack when he narrated James's The Golden Bowl on Masterpiece Theatre. When he's portraying the enigmatic, reclusive master of Bly, Calvert appears to be channeling the Orson Welles of Jane Eyre. And pilfering his wardrobe.

I'm not sure that Calvert ever opens his eyes for either of these roles. The squinting is even more exaggerated in his portrayal of Mrs. Grose, the crusty old housekeeper who may know more than she's telling. All of these are delightfully poised and provocative. But the best of the set may be the mischievous little boy Miles, whose expulsion from school, in our governess' mind, seems to stem from his being possessed by an evil ghost. For him, Calvert's eyes never seem to close!

As Calvert changes from one incarnation to another, we conspire in the magic. There are no startling changes in makeup, costumes, sets, props, or furnishings under lighting designer Hallie Gray's dim, ghoulish gels. With the steep rake of the spectator space at the Attic -- and the glassed light/sound booth behind us -- it's often very much like sitting in a studio during a radio spookfest.

Stilley may be a tad too pretty to play our nervous, passionate governess, but she beautifully modulates ardor and anger, fear and courage, tenderness and sternness in a performance that only falters when she's asked to plunge over the edge. She doesn't do British with Calvert's flair, but what she substitutes isn't jarring.

If you're feeling like you've had too much candy and too little Halloween, head up to the Attic for Turn of the Screw. A perfect adjustment.

On a night when my Bronx Bombers were inexplicably losing the World Series to a team of snakes, I had good fortune to spend the better part of the evening -- and that disastrous ballgame -- with fellow Yankees fan Wynton Marsalis. The jazz icon, who just turned 40, brought his newest septet to Belk Theater, filling the house with his star appeal and fairly blowing it away with his clarion trumpet.

He began by exhuming a rare bit of Ellingtonia from the Duke's vast treasure chest, "Play the Blues and Go," in an arrangement that deftly mixed ensemble passages and solos. Victor Goines, one of Wynton's more senior stablemates, let loose a particularly fierce clarinet rant. "Warm Daddy" Anderson, another face we saw when Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra came to town a couple of seasons back, was particularly stellar on alto sax, shining most brilliantly on Marsalis' arrangement of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

Wynton's new trombonist, Ron Westray, has a smoother sound than his predecessor, Wycliffe Gordon, but he worked the crowd to a hot lather in Marsalis' "Pedro's Getaway." And the new pianist, Rich Johnson, parleyed an eclectic range of styles, tossing off licks that sounded like Red Garland and Bobby Timmons before thundering some McCoy Tyner.

Of course, nobody is more eclectic than Marsalis, who can synthesize the entire history of jazz trumpet in an evening -- with huge swathes of the music. After two gorgeous solos on his own "Midnight Blue," he was sheer brilliance on Monk's "Ba-Lue Bolivar Blues-Are" and sheer heaven on Miles Davis' classic "All Blues."

I'm not sure that Wynton's playing has improved during the past decade while he emerged as the premiere talking head in jazz history. But his introductory patter has certainly ascended to new heights. The anecdotes about Dizzy Gillespie and Miles were the choicest crowdpleasers.

And he roots for the good guys. Who can ask for more?

Once again Michael Simmons and Victory Pictures have brought a slick-looking production to the fabulously refurbished Matthews Community Center. Talking With, a loosely strung together set of 11 women's monologues, is the theater piece that put the mysterious playwright Jane Martin on the American theater radar screen back in 1982 at the Humana Festival in Louisville. It's the second Martin script to be done in Metrolina this year, following the wondrous Actor's Theatre production of Anton in Show Business.

But I didn't get back onto the I-485 Outerbelt feeling that this was the right piece for the snazzy Matthews space -- or for Simmons. The notion that the space might be wrong crystallized when Jinny Mitchell, an actress we see all too seldom, was performing the most quiet and lyrical of the pieces, "Lamps." As Lila, the aging curator of her own private lamp collection, Mitchell weaves her way through a stage filled with a wide variety of lamps -- including a football helmet dangling down from the fly loft. Rhapsodizing about the comfort and the infinite possibilities of the light, she's half poet and half lunatic. Yet, I couldn't help feeling how much more magical this would all be if we were sitting closer to Mitchell, at the same level or above, and perhaps even surrounding her.

Unfortunately, the notion that Simmons wasn't quite connecting with the script came much earlier. Most of the monologists who precede Mitchell don't really confide in the audience. They tend to orate, declaim, and loudly perform. Carolyn Dempsey's "Scraps," an evocation of a Cleveland housewife who escapes to her own private Oz in a patchwork costume, fitfully connected. Better still was Allison Cobb's "Clear Glass Marbles," about a woman trying to learn the art of letting go in the wake of her mother's death.

Other monologues tended to come off like promising students' work in their first acting class. Sasha Taylor as an actress, Kris Jordan as an auditioning cat owner, Laura Aguirre as a disgruntled rodeo rider, and Dawn Blasi as a baton twirler all came up short on their assignments. The complexities of portraying a performer when she isn't "on" -- or delving beneath the surface when she is -- were beyond their grasp.

To be truthful, Martin's script was occasionally a hindrance. How natural is it, after all, to moan about the vicissitudes of a baton twirler, comparing yourself to a "nigger" in one breath and Jesus the next?

After Mitchell's magic, only Erica Owens' stint as a snake handler struck me as insecure. Bonnie Johnson was the comedy highlight of the evening in "French Fries," about a colorful, cheerful bag lady who finds meaning and pleasure at McDonald's with her lettuce, pickles, and onions. Dee Abdullah was spontaneous and compelling as the new mom in "Dragons," though I found little significance amid her sound and fury.

Pam Hunt Spradley closed out in "Marks," the most haunting piece of the night. Swiveling around to us on her barstool, she's covered with tattoos, particularly her face. We learn that the first mark came from a knife blade in a parking lot. And we realize that she's rearranged much more than her face as a result of this traumatic assault.

An interesting gallery of women. Try to sit up close.

Last minute illness forced some radical adjustments at UNC-Charlotte's production of O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon. Cody Harding had to abruptly move up from a minor role to the female lead, playing it last Thursday night with the script in her hand.

That didn't mar the chemistry between Jason Loughlin and Tim Weathersby as the Mayo brothers, Andrew and Robert. Both adore Ruth, the girleen portrayed by Ruth, yet it's their willingness to sacrifice for one another -- not jealousy -- that hatches the tragedy. Loughlin is revelation from beginning to end as the more muscular, less intellectual brother; and Weathersby keeps pace with him until intermission as the sickly bookworm. The hacking cough was beyond reproach at the end, but I never forgot I was watching a college lad when I beheld Weathersby's disillusionment, aging, and disintegration.

The overall production was still exceptional with fine direction from Dennis Black and cunning set pieces that work quite handily at Rowe Studio. Should be even better this week when Harding may be able to toss the script aside. She was already quite good holding onto it.*

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