Tree bodes well for August at CAST

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OK, so there are only a couple of tenuous connections between the youthful Treehouse Acting Company and the Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, which is older than at least one of the actors who performed in the Treehouse production last weekend. Both companies have produced A Tree With Arms and, since last month, both have performed exclusively at CAST’s new NoDa space at 2424 N. Davidson Street.

The Treehouse’s Tree, performed deeper into the CAST complex than last month’s Neon Psalms, reminded us of a key asset shared by the new 2424 spaces that a couple of other companies might covet. Not only are the spaces big — big enough to accommodate a trailer in Neon — they are tall. Tall enough to accommodate two treehouses and their warring gangs. Height will be desirable next month when CAST stages the regional premiere of August: Osage County, Tracy Letts’ powerful Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.

Not only is Osage about the wrangling of an Oklahoma family that stretches across three generations, it’s set in a house that’s three stories high. Or at least it was on Broadway, for when I saw it earlier this month in Ashland, Oregon, disaster had struck one of the three theaters at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, forcing the production to move to a different location. Instead of the Bowmer Theatre, Osage was resourcefully staged in a large tent that the Festival, in emergency mode, hastily built in a nearby park.

It was a little like cramming the height of the Broadway production into a space like Actor’s Theatre on Stonewall Street or CP’s panoramic Pease Auditorium on Elizabeth Avenue. Performers soldiered on bravely, brilliantly, but their world had been diminished — downsized from the scale of TV’s Dallas to All in the Family. Comparisons between the exiled OSF production and the one opening in NoDa on August 25 will be all in favor of CAST when it comes to set and scale.

Surprisingly enough, comparisons between CAST and Treehouse are not lopsidedly in favor of the adult company when I match up their two productions of A Tree With Arms. Back in 2004, when Allyn Points and CAST co-produced the Charlotte premiere of James Saba’s drama up at Clement Avenue, it ranked #3 on my list of worst shows that year, partly because the ongoing feud between Corky’s Team and Joel’s Team is so childish and absurd.

But with real kids, aged 6-14, playing the roles, Saba’s grasp of the thinking and speaking of young people becomes more of an asset, though there’s still no mistaking this work for Lord of the Flies. And of course, when CAST produced the show seven years, I assumed certain levels of competence and professionalism would be maintained. When a kid ensemble reached those same standards, under the direction of youthful Treehouse co-founder Matt Mitchell, the results could be amazing.

Cue pick-up, in particular, was phenomenal throughout the show, indicative of a level of concentration and rehearsal that eclipsed any elementary school and nearly all high school productions I’d ever seen. Nor did anyone in the cast lapse out of character when spoken to or obliged to freeze until his or her action resumed. The group was disciplined, and the best individuals in the show delivered portrayals that were layered and nuanced. Certainly these included Justin Norwood as Corky, the team leader with treehouse seniority, and Jeremy Cousar as Joel, the next-door interloper. Luke Mitchell was also startlingly good as Jeremy, the bellicose instigator.

Treehouse co-founder Abby Corrigan multi-tasked admirably, designing sets and costumes while holding down the key role of Tara, a teammate of Corky’s itching to switch teams and boyfriends. Ben Larkin as the reluctant new beau, Alex, was equally convincing. Otherwise, since Saba’s juvenile world is somewhat sexist, the girls’ roles weren’t interesting until late in the script when they became the peacemakers. Before that, I would have liked to see them deployed more often to the front lines of the verbal hostilities — and participating in the all-important game of Battleship!

Some exciting things are happening in this new 28th Street space. Hopefully, CAST will achieve true grand opening lift-off when they officially launch their new HQ in August with August. That three-hour, three-act, three-story drama will be a tall order.

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