Arts » Performing Arts

The Rich Get Filthier


You go back-and-forth in time and space as you journey through Lanford Wilson's Book of Days, now playing in the Duke Courtyard Theatre at Spirit Square. Adding to the overall blur of place and time, the set design of the current Actor's Theatre production looks like the ruins of a Greek theater or a miniature Roman Coliseum -- though we're clearly intended to imagine the action in a small Missouri town at a time when even the local Reverend knows how to utilize the Internet. Last summer, perhaps.

This is contemporary Middle America, and this, Wilson wants us to know, is what we've come to. He offers us a full range of provincial types, from the plodding Sheriff all the way up to the rich owner of the local cheese plant and his scheming, ambitious son.

Toss in one outsider whose promising Hollywood directing career was butchered by film editors implementing the aesthetics of studio bean-counters. You might blame the trouble in Dublin, Missouri on Boyd Middleton's decision to cast Ruth Hoch in the title role of Shaw's Saint Joan. Before that unlikely event, Ruth might not have had the spine to act on her suspicions of foul play or launch her crusade against the jovial, vulgar Earl Hill.

But you never know. Ruth is married to Len, a visionary who believes that the Bates plant can produce finer domestic cheeses than Kraft! Stranger things have happened.

Dennis Delamar has rounded up a strong cast, including four past winners of CL acting awards and three past nominees. They struggle against a script where confrontations never combust, characters never achieve memorable depth, and the overall tapestry never says anything fresh or shocking about our plutocratic republic.

While there's noticeable strain to add substance to some of the flimsier roles, I'm quite gratified by the rehab done by the principals. Laura Depta was compelling in her advocacy of Ruth's heartfelt trials -- against the profundities of Shaw's Joan and the Dublin power structure -- although the full preternatural simplicity of Ruth was beyond her.

Len is nearly as much the protagonist here as his wife, and Greg McGrath embodies his practical idealism beautifully. Jerry Colbert as the world-weary theater troubadour and Jim Greenwood as the Bates patriarch are confident and assured in roles custom-tailored to their strengths, and Carver Johns explores new vistas of seedy menace as Earl.

Nothing that Alan Nelson had done previously in Charlotte prepared me for the richness and loathsomeness he brings so discreetly to James Bates, the young cheese whiz with designs on the State House. Tonya Shuffler does nearly as well portraying the pure wife James must discard to fulfill his animal cravings -- until Wilson abruptly demotes her role to compliant insignificance.

Polly Adkins will no doubt improve as Len's mom, a smart-mouthed junior college dean, once she reconciles herself to her marginality. And Bobby Tyson's Rev. will be more authentically Midwestern if he adds more glibness and subtracts some intelligence. But Mary Alice Adams figures to remain stiff and ill-at-ease as the Bates matriarch until her acting lessons take hold.

Overall, however, the cast was already lifting this less-than-classic script toward the momentous level it aspires to when I saw them before a near-capacity house last Saturday. Graced by Hallie Gray's cool lighting and Chip Decker's way retro set design, the production looks purposeful. With plenty of trashy plotting centered on a murder mystery to engage them, audiences seem to like what they see.

Disabused of the notion that they're delivering an important message for our times, this fine cast may be even more likable through the rest of the run.

Up at Lowe's Motor Speedway, there's a blue-and-yellow miracle of rare device -- the Grand Chapiteau, where Cirque du Soleil's Quidam will be delighting children of all ages through April 21. From Highway 49, the striking big top may not look like it can house one of the world's most acclaimed circuses plus 2600 people.

It does. Comfortably. Ingeniously. Spectacularly.

Four mighty scaffolds, each outfitted with an array of stage lights, hold up the rigging. All are so perfectly aligned with the entranceways that there isn't a single seat with an obstructed view. Five rails carve an arced path along the ceiling from behind the stage, bringing ropes, scenery, and aerialists out toward the audience -- and over us.

With a live band and vocalists performing over a breathtaking sound system nearly throughout the aerial acts, I never heard even the slightest squeal coming from the gleaming rails.

Once you're settled in under the Grand Chapiteau, painted to simulate a night sky studded with storm clouds, the entertainment is as classy as the atmosphere. It's the settling in where the problems surfaced.

Perhaps figuring that Cirque du Soleil crowds couldn't create anything like the traffic snarls of NASCAR races, Speedway and Soleil folk instituted absolutely no traffic control outside on NC49. We got off the Interstate at 7:40 and barely reached our seats before the show began.

Until traffic controls are enforced, you'll avoid the worst of these problems by arriving at the Speedway from the south.

Once you've conquered parking, Cirque's polished showmanship is hard to resist. Emphasis in the aerial acts is never on death-defying height so much as on aesthetic and theatrical presentation meshing with the original Benoit Jutras score. Supreme in this regard is the "Aerial Contortion in Silk," featuring the mesmerizing choreography of Debra Brown performed by French contortionist Isabelle Vaudelle.

Wrapping herself in two sturdy strands of fiery silk, Vaudelle sometimes evokes the weaving of a spider, the birthing of a butterfly, or the proverbial falling of a sparrow. At one key point, beautifully silhouetted in Luc Lafortune's shimmering lighting design, she's a pendulous babe in the womb.

A trio of aerial hoop maidens, ascending skywards spinning like little funnel clouds, came closest to matching Vaudelle's magic. After these innovative dazzlers, the "Spanish Webs" trio and Natalie Harris' "Cloud Swing" were somewhat anticlimactic.

But there are plenty family-pleasing moments that are primarily earthbound. Speaking a patois of European tongues, a sprinkling of English, and the universal language of grunts, groans, and sight gags, Cirque's clowns are a perpetual delight.

While the skiprope fantasia wasn't flawless, the exuberance of the troupe and the music triumphed. The duo of Yves Decoste and Marie-Laure Mesnage teamed to make a stunning series of human sculptures with their amazingly balanced and controlled bodies. And the Slavic troupe of banquine artists, stacking themselves higher and higher after thrilling somersaults, did not disappoint.

The frame of all this acrobatic derring-do is a fine theater pastry -- sweet, artful, delighting the eye and ear. Banks of thunder rumble realistically across the big top. An endless cavalcade of suggestive imagery parades around the main action.

Occasionally we're offered ponderous pretentiousness masquerading as substance. But the lyrical plaints of Gabrielle Cloutier as the alienated Zoe strike an emotional chord. And when the Magritte-inspired headless figure arrives, the terror of maturation and the liberation of imagination are tellingly conjured.

Test driving this entertainment with a party ranging from age six to octogenarian -- with two generations in between -- we all emerged quite satisfied with Quidam. Sometimes, it's dark. More often, it's spellbinding.*

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