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Theater review: ThomThom (if that bird won't sing)

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Imported from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the protagonists in ThomThom (if that bird won't sing) aren't the first pair to get lost in the woods. Fairy tale siblings have done it, and Dante was in exactly that predicament when his pal Vergil guided him on a long twisted path to salvation. Why, it wasn't even a month ago that a Stephen Sondheim musical had the makeshift woods at Halton Theater abuzz with the heroes and villains of five fairy tales.

Matt Cosper's script picks up the story line just before the warm, bittersweet ending of Lee's 50-year-old novel. Arthur and Jean Louise, better known as Boo Radley and Scout, haven't made it back from the fateful school theatrical to the safety of Atticus Finch's rustic household. They are lost, but they are also being stalked by an unsavory, murderous band led by Cort, a bloodthirsty wizard whose garb and makeup have elements of hobo, ringmaster, cannibal, and clown. There are also song-and-dance elements to Magisterial Cort's walking stick, since there are about a dozen Jon Lindsay songs along the way.

Like many absurdist plays, this mucks around in the world of myth and revels in assailing the conventions of theater. So although Jean Louise doesn't say it out loud, we aren't in Alabama anymore. Nor is it explicit in this Machine Theatre concoction whether Arthur is trying to bring JL home or helping her run away. Because there are comical and predatory aspects to Cort's nature, the ground is constantly shifting beneath us. Despite his powers, Cort is wary of Jean Louise, as if she is gifted with some latent Harry Potter power.

Thom, the naïf of Cort's gang, is instantly smitten by Jean Louise. She is captivated by the boy, complicating her relationship with Arthur. Is he being protective, or is Boo flat-out jealous? On the other hand, Cort never appears jealous or betrayed by ThomThom -- his reaction to disloyalty over the course of the play has a godly capriciousness to it. We're faced with the possibility that conquest over Jean Louise cannot be accomplished without seduction or corruption. Perhaps that is Cort's ultimate triumph at the end of Act 2.

Of course, we had a peep at Act 1 last September at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, with less scenery and fewer Jon Lindsay songs. Evidently, Cosper and his Machine team of collaborators didn't think the earlier script was as close to perfection as I did. As a result, they have let the some of the early dramatic tensions go slack in the remount at Duke Energy Theatre, casting aside some of the comedy and buffoonery that was rooted in those tensions.

Arthur is still weird, but his volatility, possible insanity, and potential for violence emerge more slowly. That click reminding me where Act 1 had ended so emphatically didn't happen until well after intermission. Giving us taut drama and underlining the threefold perils faced by Thom -- retribution from Cort, rejection by Jean Louise, and primal savagery from Arthur -- are lower priorities now than they were last summer.

Cosper and stage director Barney Baggett bring new dimensions to the action at the Duke that were all but unthinkable at CAST. The balcony winding around the theater comes into play in Act 1, where the script forces us to suspend our suspension of disbelief, most strikingly when Kate tells one of her cronies how to find the upper level. More kidding of the conventions occurs when Cort pauses to address us or a song breaks out for no reason at all.

But if absurdists are supposed to be abstract, conceptual, and anti-theatrical, Cosper occasionally skewers them as well. References to Dillard's, "just kickin' it," and the Char-Meck library mess would be enough to warrant excommunication from Becket and Ionesco -- and they certainly grate against the notion that Jean Louise is weathering puberty during the Jim Crow '30s.

For those who remember Chloe Aktas as Jean Louise, Julia Grigg won't seem as tomboyish or plucky, but Grigg's sunny smile and insouciance are fascinating substitutes -- and her curiosity and appetite for experience still have a steely strength. Barry Newkirk gives us a darker Thom than we saw from Luke Pizzato, with an ungainliness that borders Tim Burton's animated frontiers. Robert Haulbrook completes the love triangle as Arthur, as strange and catatonic as he was last year.

Reading more frequently and insistently from a rather tedious book, Barbi VanSchaick is less of a malevolent, scheming buccaneer this time around -- and more of an annoying reading lamp -- but she's as wonderful as the script will allow. Jeremy Shane, on the other hand, hugely benefits from the rewrites as Savage Red. Cosper takes on the daunting challenge of following Robert Lee Simmons in the role of Cort. In malevolence and sheer intimidating stage presence, Cosper cannot compete, so the trade-off is like tossing aside the Bill Sykes menace of Oliver Reed for the craftier evil of Michael Caine.

Lindsay's music seems even seedier and anti-music than it was before. Of course, the play's the thing. If Act 1 is somewhat disappointing, Act 2 dispelled my intermission misgivings, with a spectacular ending that fulfills the promise -- and premise -- of a divine comedy.

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