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Village Co-Education

Strong performances spark Off-Tryon drama

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Ending their third season up in NoDa, Off-Tryon Theatre Company seems to be hitting its stride. They certainly raised their game to new heights last month with Never the Sinner, a disturbing docudrama that chronicled the toxic relationship between Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb -- and their notorious Jazz Age murder trial.While the current production of Diana Son's Stop Kiss doesn't boast nearly the same high-concept design as Sinner, you won't detect any appreciable comedown in the performances of the bisexual protagonists. Nor will the intimacy between Sara and Callie creep you out.

Much of the suspense vanishes fairly early when we cut from Callie's Manhattan apartment to a police station in Greenwich Village. Under interrogation after her friend has been brutally beaten in a gay-bashing assault, Callie's first account is a clear sign that she's not ready to come out of the closet. Yes, gay bashing and gay shame are possible in America's most fabled Bohemia.

Ironically, coming out isn't a choice for Callie even though she and Sara haven't become lovers. Callie finds herself outed by the media while Sara is still comatose, a pariah to her friend's relatives who fly in from St. Louis to visit.

Son, however, isn't fixated on dramatizing the attack, tracking down the perpetrator, or finding reconciliation with parents and ex-boyfriends. What she shows us, shuttling back and forth between the blooming of the couple's romance and Sara's slow recovery, are two intertwined voyages to enlightenment and self-discovery. Both Callie and Sara are transformed along the way.

It's the native New Yorker who has more to learn. As a radio traffic reporter, Callie realizes that she's not a real journalist. Worse, she's not providing a real service. Traffic is always snarled entering and leaving Manhattan when she broadcasts. But until she meets Sara, Callie wallows and moans in her rut rather than extricating herself.

That's exactly what the more adventurous Sara has just done, abandoning a humdrum household with a humdrum boyfriend, blissfully entering the war zone of a Bronx public school on the wings of a fellowship. Whether or not she's had any previous lesbian experiences back in St. Loo remains shrouded in mystery, but director Joanna Gerdy clearly sees her as the instigator.

Cody Harding gauges both the daring and the diffidence of Sara to perfection. Slowly breaking down Callie's resistance, Harding's eyes tell us secrets that elude her more streetwise friend. If there's any weakness in Harding's portrayal, it's that the abundant expressiveness of those eyes detracts from Sara's debilitation when she's unable to speak.

Perpetually fidgeting, Robin Taylor provides telling contrast as Callie, more energetic than her friend but less strong. A jumble of ambivalence, Taylor sustains Callie's appeal by keeping the copter jockey quick-tongued in her dolor, smart without insight.

Supporting players, particularly Aaron Moore as the brusque detective and Lee Thomas as Callie's sometime boyfriend, are beautifully cast. But everybody must struggle to transcend Jason Holbrooks' cramped, uninspired set design. Until the scene where Callie finally yields to impulse and delivers the kiss, Barbara Berry's lighting adds nothing magical.

Luckily, Taylor and Harding are often riveting in their intricate mating dance.

Once before, in the ancient days of Innovative Theatre, there was a sighting of the vast conspiratorial brotherhood. Laddy Sartin preached as the visionary Reverend Eddie, Michael Corrigan skulked as his humpbacked disciple, and a laughing congregation struggled to learn Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends: A Final Evening With the Illuminati.Many of us forgot the full title of Levi Lee and Larry Larson's hilarious sacrilege long before we could forget Rev. Eddie's epic one-on-one roundball battle against the wily Satan. Now the vision and the madness that were CL's 1990 Show of the Year have returned, courtesy of Victory Pictures, to the Central Avenue Playhouse. Thanks to the Universal Life Church of Modesto, CA, Vic Pix director Michael Simmons and all his cast and crew have become ordained. They minister weddings for all who are willing to take the plunge, and the evening's entertainment is free -- although the plate is passed.

What had been the anteroom for performances earlier this month at 1118 Clement Avenue -- an old warehouse, really -- is now gloriously consecrated as a theater, with nice, cushioned pews adding to the righteous ambiance. Simmons' set is vast, intricately cluttered, and macabre, meshing wondrously with his lighting design and Dean Kluesner's spooky original score. One of the several onstage skeletons plays the organ (in the orthodox Grand Guignol idiom).

The monastic rapture of Hugh Loomis as Reverend Eddie chimes nicely with the ruin he inhabits, but I'd favor some more comical flavoring in his rhetorical excesses. There has to be a lighter side to a man who writes his final sermon, "Life Is Like a Basketball Game," in his underwear. Eric Blake is closer to the true spirit as the servile Brother Lawrence, leaning toward the teachings of Jerry Lewis in his dopiness and deformity.

Most pleasing in Simmons' direction were the audience participation interludes. By presenting your ticket stub to the good Brother, for instance, you get to view a memorably cheesy relic in Act 2. Less satisfying was the pacing of the Vic Pix production. Even with a backstage dresser speeding costume changes, blackouts between scenes last Saturday were overlong. What seemed madly improvised 13 years ago began to seem fragmented and disjointed.

That's not altogether bad, since The Illuminati actually took shape as a series of skits performed by Lee and Larson. I doubt that they've ever looked better. If Vic Pix can pick up the pace and fix that damn flagellation machine, all may yet be right with the end of the world.

To the last, North Carolina Dance Theatre's season-ending Cinderella program was a promotional disaster. Pressed back into service when season subscriptions fell below budget, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux's fairytale ballet from the 2001-02 season was intended to spell box office relief by replacing Balanchine's Agon and a Nacho Duato tribute to the Amazon Rain Forest. Didn't happen. Even the print ads -- inexplicably picturing Cindy's prince in a tux -- didn't spark ticket sales.Artistically, the ballet remains a delectable bonbon with Mia Cunningham seeming younger than ever in the title role. The holdover on the program, Dwight Rhoden's Verge, looked more powerful and coherent than a year ago, thanks to NCDT's new sensation, Uri Sands, ascending from the chthonic depths. Sands is pictured on the front page of the 2003-04 brochure, solid ground for optimism.

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