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Viva La Fringe!

Stage is set for Theatre Festival

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The whole idea was refreshingly retro last July. City Stage Theatre Festival reprised four fringe theater productions at Spirit Square. Shows that had been successful up in NoDa and down in SouthEnd were corralled by producer Anne Lambert, subsidized by the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and showcased at Duke Power Theatre for one weekend apiece.

Pushed along with a modicum of promotional pizzazz — and Creative Loafing sponsorship — City Stage fit in beautifully with the burgeoning Uptown scene. Crowds that had never even heard about the fine productions of Melissa James Gibson's [sic] up on Cullman Avenue or Stan Peal's The Friar & the Nurse on Rampart Street suddenly came face-to-face with the acting and playwrighting riches that reside in our midst. At the same time, the intimate Duke enjoyed a well-deserved renascence on North Tryon.

Encore!

City Stage 2005 returns, with Anne Lambert and the PAC recruiting a whole new fringe legion to Spirit Square. This year, each of the four shows selected for the festival will play two weekends at Duke Power Theatre. So the summer celebration will overflow into June and August, beginning this Thursday with the BareBones Theatre Group's production of Psycho Beach Party.

When she peeped in on the show in rehearsal last summer, it was love at first sight for Lambert, who serves as a managing consultant with BBTG.

"As soon as I saw the show, I thought it was terrific," recalls Lambert. "Great energy, fabulous music, fantastic cast, and it's a real positive, upbeat, fun, crazy, zany show. And I thought, if we get the chance to do City Stage again, this show will definitely be in the lineup. It fits into all of the goals, which are to showcase the best of these other companies in town and to spotlight some really talented performers."

Originally produced Off-Broadway in 1987, Psycho Beach is an improbable hybrid, simultaneously satirizing the Gidget surfing movies of the early 60s and Mommie Dearest from the early 80s. Not twisted enough for you? Think of playwright Charles Busch in the role of Chicklet Forrest, the tomboy surfboarder whose multiple personalities include a bad-ass dominatrix.

BBTG artistic director Jim Yost mixed in live beach music from the Aqualads and a new gender twist: Emily Van Dyke took on Chicklet, bringing fresh wholesomeness to the schizoid gamine. But Van Dyke, currently vamping the title role in Gypsy at CPCC, won't be participating in the revival. Instead, Beth Pierce will lug Chicklet's lumber, a new horizon for CL's 2003 Actress of the Year.

Following the Psycho Beach revival, running June 16-26, two fringe faves will open in July. Then an intriguing premiere from Lambert's own company, Charlotte's Off-Broadway, closes the festival in August. Here's the rest of the slate:

Laughing Wild by Christopher Durang (CAST) — Two wayward souls have an unfortunate encounter in the canned tuna fish aisle. Intersecting monologues dissect the encounter, life in New York, and the universe. Comedy co-stars Michael Simmons and Leslie Beckham grabbed CL Theatre Award nominations in 2004 for their acting and TJ Derham was nominated for his direction. July 14-24.

Sylvia by A. R. Gurney (Off-Tryon) — The story of a man, his midlife crisis and his immoderate attachment to a stray dog. Key cast members return, including Lee Thomas as the flailing man, Meghan Lowther as the hyper dog Sylvia, and Donna Scott as the hugely unsympathetic wife. Lowther snagged a Best Actress nomination at CL in 2003 for the title role, Glenn T. Griffin won similar recognition as director, and we still fondly recall Sylvia's outrage after her spaying. July 28-August 7.

Matt & Ben by Mindy Kaling & Brenda Withers — You may already know that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were obscure showbiz non-entities until they teamed together to write and star in Good Will Hunting. What you may not know is that two aspiring stars followed in their footsteps by retelling the Matt & Ben success story and acting the lead roles. There's just a slight twist. These writers were women — one of them black. Tonya McClellan and Caroline Renfro are the stars with Lambert directing.

What drew Lambert to this odd two-hander? "It pushes all my artistic buttons," she confesses. "It's messing around with gender, it's messing around with race, it's messing around with celebrity, pop culture. I love Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. So I was very excited when I read about this show. Then I had a chance to see it on tour in Atlanta. To me it epitomizes the brand of theater and the kind of show that I really enjoy." August 11-21.

Creative Loafing returns as City Stage sponsor for a second year. Evening performances on Thursday through Saturday nights will begin at 8pm, with Sunday matinees set for 2pm. We'll put our own special stamp on the festival following the first Friday night performance of each show.

On those nights, I'll be presiding over a LivePulse encounter with the director and cast of each City Stage show. Join me in the Spirit Square lobby for these post-show Q&A sessions. Relax with a drink or a snack as I begin the discussions, then get ready to fire some questions of your own.

Viva la fringe!

Capsule Reviews

The Tale of the Allergist's Wife — Skewering the pretensions of bourgeois New Yorkers, Charles Busch has written a fiendishly subversive script that proves devilishly hard for Actor's Theatre to cast, construe or communicate. As the depressed title character, Daryl Gerber is too histrionic to allow Marjorie Taub's seething rage to credibly explode through her inertia. Jim Esposito is too pathologically cuddly as the allergist to give us even a hint of Ira's maddening conceit or complacency. So when free-spirited Lee Green bursts energetically into their lives, in a finely judged portrayal from Elyse Williams, ambiguity is ousted by confusion. Directing her polished cast, Karen Lamb totally misses Busch's argument. When the indictment of the Taubs' hypocrisy should be most devastating at the end of the evening, this sharp, bubbly production sputters to a clueless conclusion.

Gypsy — Emily Van Dyke and Kathryn Stamas look the parts of the legendary stripper and her Mamma Rose, thanks largely to the fine costuming by Annie-Laurie Wheat. But director Billy Ensley doesn't quite coax Van Dyke to full vampitude though she sings prettily, and Stamas doesn't bring enough belt to carry all of Rose's showstoppers. Rose is a convincing tyrant jerking her kids cross-country through the vaudeville circuit, but as a stirring showbiz evangelist, Stamas is as lackluster as CP Summer Theatre's scenery.

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