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Totalitarians R Us

Plus, Tang gang's big bang

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Without the easy assistance of pornography or sedition, Martin McDonagh may have attempted to create the most corrosive, corrupting play possible when he wrote The Pillowman. Liberally spattered with bathos, condescension and gallows humor to keep us amused -- and set us up for the jack-in-the-box horrors -- this twisty tale of interrogation and torture in "an unnamed totalitarian state" is an equal-opportunity offender.

Yes, if police practice is your barometer, totalitarian government is toxic. That's not the whole story in this haunting and disturbing Actor's Theatre production. Frontal assaults are bounced back in the direction of humanistic institutions -- against art, imagination and even family -- with plenty of toxicity unearthed in each of those domains.

Sorting out the relative evils and virtues of Katurian, his dimwitted sibling Michal, and their interrogators -- Tupolski and Ariel -- will spark some keen postmortem controversy. It all starts out so simply and straightforwardly. The short story writer, Katurian, honestly has no idea why he has been arrested and brought in for questioning. His brother, screaming from an adjoining room, is being used as a pawn to elicit a confession.

Police tactics? Tupolski helpfully explains that he's the good cop and Ariel's the bad cop.

Every one of these solid foundations crumbles beneath our feet as we learn more about Katurian's ordeal, his stories, and his upbringing. Turning everything topsy-turvy, McDonagh softens the jackboots, giving them humor and past hardships to leaven their hard-boiled pragmatism. Why, even after turning our assumptions upside down, apparently unveiling the dire consequences of Katurian's fiction, McDonagh somehow turns that upside down, like a illusionist performing an impossible escape.

Topping off all of McDonagh's diabolical exploits, you'll catch a couple of rich moments -- if you're really alert -- when McDonagh, delighted with his own mastery, laughs at our trepidations the same way that Tupolski laughs at Katurian's. These moments, we realize, prove the playwright's most devastating point. He knows he's doing something profoundly wicked.

Intoxicating stuff, when you think about it, compounded by the fact that children must be part of the cast to explore these unspeakable horrors. Under Dennis Delamar's superb direction, we get a couple of startling performances. If you thought Billy Ensley was too sugary at the core to play a writer with as warped an imagination as Katurian K. Katurian's, your eyes will be opened -- even if you've seen the edgiest of Ensley's previous roles. Similarly, if you thought Chip Decker was pure ham and shtick onstage, watch him as little brother Michal and you will be cured of your misperception.

You wouldn't see anything like this onstage unless these actors felt an overwhelming compulsion to be these brothers. As artfully as McDonagh manipulates us, you don't see the artifice in the chemistry between these siblings.

That's not to say that Brian Robinson as Tupolski and Rob Simmons as Ariel don't deliver the same high voltage as the implacable interrogators. I'm only saying that they don't transcend themselves in doing it.

McDonagh obviously knows what we might cringe to see. Give him credit for hitting those buttons effectively -- and keeping us on edge, anticipating the next sudden shock. What makes The Pillowman so unforgettable is McDonagh's ability to tap into what we're afraid to think, to hold up a horridly distorting mirror to all we blithely assume, convincing us that what we're seeing now is true.

The power that drew Ensley and Decker toward Pillowman -- and drew such unprecedented work from them -- certainly won't spend itself harmlessly on audiences in coming weeks on Stonewall Street. In 20+ years of reviewing, I can't remember a single production anywhere that had me dreaming about it the same night. Now I cannot pretend my Pillowman dreams were nightmares. Nor will I guarantee yours won't be.

While Actor's Theatre was mucking around in the evils that lurk at the heart of man, The Drowsy Chaperone was charming the masses at Belk Theater -- celebrating the mindlessness that allows evil to flourish. Scratch that last phrase. For like a phony plastic tree planted in a finely crafted ceramic, the fictive 1928 musical at the PAC was enclosed by a humdrum urban apartment and animated by an effete aficionado sharing his guilty pleasure.

So we could have our frou-frou and understand it for what it was. Lovingly as it was lampooned, we would have tired of the silken screwball comedy and the extra-stupid songfest long before the gossamer complications threatening the wedding of Janet Van De Graaff and Robert Martin were predictably resolved.

Still, the ballast provided by our nerdy narrator ("Man in Chair"), delightfully rendered by Jonathan Crombie, seemed to invite the fictional artistes, socialites, servants, and gangsters to be a wee bit more cartoonish than necessary. There was no cause to ascend to Philip Barry, but the supporting ensemble -- including Nancy Opel as The Drowsy Chaperone -- could have risen above Dick Tracy. James Moye as Aldolpho, the dullard Lothario who seduces The Drowsy instead of the bride, seemed to have been more inspired by The Munsters than the Roaring 20's.

Happily, Andrea Chamberlain as Janet understood why our heroine wasn't sporting a foot-long cigarette holder to underscore her outsized vanity. Likewise, Mark Ledbetter kept Robert real, despite the fact that the nervous groom could break into a tap dance without warning to demonstrate his "Cold Feets" in a minstrel vein.

So despite some gross overexertions, Drowsy Chaperone succeeded as an arch homage to America's age of innocence. Conceived and incubated in Canada!

ArtsPulsations

David Tang, one-time leader of the Oratorio Singers, is surfacing again – sparking a glorious rebirth that he's calling Firebird Arts Alliance. This week and next, Tang's gang is hoping to make a big bang with a double-barreled launch onstage and on the airwaves.

The salvo began earlier this week on WTVI with the premiere of New South Crossings, the first flowering of Tang's large-scale effort to cross-pollinate various Charlotte performing artists and arts groups in stimulating collaborations. While these flowers bloom in Tang's greenhouse, the TV series will be opening a window for the rest of us to view the talents who reside amongst us.

Missed last Sunday's taste of Tang & Co.? You're forgiven. An encore broadcast of the first episode, "Swing and Shout," is scheduled for this Thursday at 8 p.m. The rest of the first season will begin rolling out next April.

If that's just not big or exciting enough, you can experience the synergy live at Halton Theater on Nov. 26. That's when Tang's new monster chorus, VOX, makes its debut in Winter Fire, Winter Light a holiday musical that promises to celebrate all the festivities of the season: Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Kwanzaa, and Native American.

Over 100 guest artists will be joining VOX onstage, including the Charlotte Jazz Orchestra, Viva Klezmer, Afro-American Cultural Center and more.

Ticket prices top out at $10, so they may go fast.

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