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Theater reviews: Rapture, Blister, Burn and more

Drama explores the family vs. career dilemma

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Goofs, gossips and glamorous femmes fatales are often the women who charm us most onstage, while feminists — good or bad — are shown to be relatively humorless, principled and asexual. If Wendy Wasserstein's Heidi Chronicles was more pertinent and to the point than Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart, it seemed to come at the expense of human warmth and a vital pulsebeat. That's probably why I find Gina Gionfriddo's Rapture, Blister, Burn so encouraging in its exploration of the classic family-vs.-career dilemma.

Three generations of women discuss, reconsider and alter their beliefs as their individual dramas play with them. Like Wasserstein, Gionfriddo is unapologetic when the discussion grows intellectual, and like Henley, she allows plenty of irrational emotion to gush forth — chased with occasional beers and martinis. A 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Rapture, Blister, Burn artfully contrives to embed a love triangle within a graduate seminar in a smart, compact production from Charlotte's Off-Broadway now at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center in Cornelius.

College friends Catherine and Gwen were stuck on the same guy, Don Harper, a couple of decades ago. Catherine flew off to Europe after graduation, spurned Don's pleas to come home, became a leading feminist scholar, and now brings some allure to the movement as a hot talk show guest. Meanwhile, Gwen snagged Don while Catherine was overseas, settled into humdrum housewifery as the stern, teetotaler mother of two in academe, while Don is coasting along as a dean at a fourth-rate liberal arts college.

All three are tormented by regrets, so it's not totally surprising that the reunion of the old college chums ignites an orgy of life-swapping as long-held beliefs are re-examined in the harsh light of their consequences. While the drama heats up, so does discussion. Catherine has returned to her hometown to take care of her mother, who recently suffered a heart attack, but with her expertise and celebrity, it isn't difficult for Don to set her up during the summer semester teaching a seminar on feminism.

Shaken out of her complacency, Gwen is the only enrollee for the course aside from the babysitter she has just fired, punkish would-be filmmaker Avery Willard. So, the cozy seminar convenes in the home of Catherine's mom, Alice Croll, who hospitably offers to stir up the martinis for after-class schmoozing. Alice elects to keep out of the way in the kitchen, but she's a mom, so when the talking veers from feminist theory to personal realities — and conflicts — nature draws her in.

Until then, and even after things get intensely personal, Gionfriddo serves up a concise, contextualized review of feminist history over the past seven decades. Thumbnail sketches are not only provided for Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem but also for conservative ERA foe Phyllis Schlafly, whom Catherine now sees as worthy of revaluation. With Avery there, the recap never comes across as a bored rehash of what everyone knows, and the college student brings a fresh perspective to the table, occasionally jarring Catherine with the realization that her own views and assumptions are growing old-fashioned.

That's part of the comedy. Catherine has a string of botched relationships in her rearview mirror, and it soon becomes evident that she's surrendering the ground she's gained from Gwen because she has a less, um, cosmopolitan grasp of how to handle men than Gwen. Or Avery. Or even her mom.

With everyone so open-minded, all four women are deliciously unpredictable, and director Sarah Provencal keeps the surprises sharp and the disputation sparkly. After excelling in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot as the fiend's defense counsel, Caroline Renfro could surely be counted on to shine as a brainy antagonist, yet she sprinkles Catherine with glints of wantonness, doubt and vulnerability that extend her dominion into new slutty and poignant regions. Soulless coldness, on the other hand, has been Anne Lambert's calling card in some of her best outings in the past, notably Coyote Ugly and Good People, and she's no less hard and emasculating as Gwen — punctuated with intervals of hope and rejuvenation.

Bill Reilly is likable and hapless as Don, a character who faintly echoes the donnish George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Yet Gionfriddo hasn't given him quite as much cunning or self-effacing charm, so we wonder at times — like Avery does — why two bright women are so devoted to him. One of Reilly's best moments comes when he protests that he is a person! The playwright doesn't heat up moments of conflict to nearly the intensity we find in Albee or Lillian Hellman, and Provencal doesn't bring actors as closely together when they're quarreling as when they're clicking.

Ginny Darcey takes on Alice without the illusion that she is the fount of ancient wisdom, giving an unexpectedly natural and subdued tone to the maternal hostess. Whatever voltage is lacking there is more than outweighed by Karina Roberts-Caporino as the brashly ready-for-anything Avery, in a rad hairdo that would give Alice a fresh heart attack if she saw it in her own mirror. I've found Roberts-Caparino pretty devastating before as the temptress in Dutchman, the action villain of Zastrozzi, and the slightly insane Ariel in The Tempest, but her brilliance here arguably eclipses all those dazzlers.

ON THE PEERLESS wings of Oscar Wilde, Moving Poets Charlotte took us back to 2001 with their revival of De Profundis, choreographed by Poets founder Till Schmidt-Rimpler, returning to us again from Berlin, and staged by Poets Charlotte artistic director Sarah Emery. It was the first half of From the Depths, a totally Wilde evening that concluded with the world premiere of Emery and Schmidt-Rimpler's Usually Strange, inspired by the writer's most celebrated poem, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol."

In a weirder echo, Scott Helm portrayed Wilde in both pieces, taking us back to 1999 and one of the highlights of his career, his performance in Charlotte Rep's production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Then he was Edward Carson, the solicitor who relentlessly attacked and destroyed Wilde in the courtroom, cuing an unforgettable disintegration by the late Alan Poindexter.

Josh Gaffga and Tamara Scott were Wilde and sentencing Judge Wills back when De Profundis premiered, so the juxtaposition of Helm and Cynthia Farbman-Harris — along with the addition of her singing "Ah, wretched Israel!" from Handel's Judas Maccabeus — brought some telling changes to the piece. Emery was among the dancers once more, longtime Poets of percussion David Crowe and Daveed Korup were up in the Booth Playhouse balcony with cellist Tanja Bechtler, just as they had been a decade ago, so the Poets' rich fusion flavor was back, together with old and new fans of the company.

Some of the old helter-skelter was also back in Usually Strange, a mix of music, video, dance and Wilde's "Ballad." One of the seven dancers was described in the program as Wilde, another as Wilde's wife Constance, and another as his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Unless you knew them by sight, you wouldn't have much of a clue as to who was who — or much of a reason to find out. So we likely haven't seen the last of this promising work-in-progress.

THE WHOLE INVISIBILITY thing makes The Emperor's New Clothes a bit more difficult than many a fairytale to grasp for pre-schoolers. So the Max Bush adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen parable, currently in its world premiere production at ImaginOn through Nov. 23, does a fine job of engaging the anklebiters for nearly 48 minutes. The wily tailors who dupe the vain Emperor are now poor actors whose plea for funding to save their theatre company has been rejected by His Majesty.

Pretending to be tailors is Plan B to help the cause of the folk back home, and since the impoverished artistes don't have any material to weave — or any knowledge of weaving — the invisibility ruse is a natural. But the aspiring actor, at his mom's prompting, has already proven his mettle in making his original plea. Challenged to demonstrate the worth of his profession by the Emperor and the Captain of his guard, our actor has responded by acting out a stirring saga, playing all three roles as Hercules rescues a damsel in distress from a sea monster.

Reaction to Scott Miller's antics as the sea monster and the damsel is so thunderous that parents can savor every second of the Emperor's abridged imitation of that performance later on when the His Majesty thinks he's all alone in his chamber doing the outrageous playacting. Not only do we see it, Stephen Seay milking it majestically in the Emp's Sunday best robe, but of course the officious Captain also walks in midway. Tanya McClellan gets that juicy moment as the Captain after getting duped by the virtuous actors, and Leslie Ann Giles takes good care of the exposition as the archetypal stage mom.

I've actually seen the Anderson classic anthologized in an introductory college-level literature textbook, so parents of pre-schoolers might consider reviewing a kiddie version with their young before bringing them to Wells Fargo Playhouse. They'll get hearty laughs whatever you do, but it never hurts to get the point.


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