Stones and sepulchers

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No local group has ever attempted Marie Jones’s Stones in His Pockets in the QC before, yet Sue and I have seen it twice — on the West End in London and on the west side of North Carolina in Asheville. That Asheville production, with Yanks as the two leading Irish blokes — plus 13 other Irishmen, Americans, and British that they turn themselves into, often the blink of an eye — was actually easier to decipher and follow than the original across the pond, where I struggled with the thickness of the local accents and sorting out the various characters. Perhaps you caught that North Carolina Stage Company production in 2009 when it was imported into Duke Energy Theatre.

Maybe it’s because Sue and I were schooled by those two earlier versions, but I found the current production at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center up in Cornelius more coherent and compelling than ever. Hank West and Michael Harris star as Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn, who meet as extras working on a Hollywood film set that has turned life upside down in a small County Kerry village. Besotted by cinematic glamour, most enticingly personified by the simpering Caroline Giovanni, townspeople forget who they are and what their circumscribed futures must be.

West, of course, has melodramatically flung a kerchief around his head on more than a few occasions as Queen City Theatre Company’s go-to drag queen, and Harris’s exploits in broad comedy stretch back to the halcyon days of Moving Poets Theatre of Dance. So there is no shortage of laughter leading up to the tragedy that lifts Stones from the realm of light-hearted mockery into the more torrid zone of poignant, bitter satire — until we U-turn at the end to a ray of creative optimism and triumph.

It helps that director Anne Lambert doesn’t drive the pace as furiously as I’ve seen before, that the costumes selected by Lambert and the players differentiate the players so well, and that all those other characters that Charlie and Jake morph into are conveniently listed and described in the playbill. Ben Pierce’s lighting mostly enhances the comedy of our heroes’ inept acting when the unseen camera rolls, but at times it layers on a patina of melancholy nostalgia.

Even on the first weekend, when West and Harris both bobbled a few lines momentarily, it was clear that both actors were having fun onstage scurrying about in their multiple identities. So the 90 minutes sped by without a hint of a lull. I’ll bet it’s even looser and swifter the next two weekends.

Over at Children’s Theatre, artistic director Alan Poindexter has stuck by his guns — or his baggies — in bringing back Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Last time, Poindexter draped the old fantasy palace on Morehead Street in black plastic, so the somber concept has been transported to ImaginOn for the first time, playing at the Wells Fargo Playhouse, the smaller theater. Taking more advantage of the Wells Fargo’s depth than we usually see, Poe/Poindexter 2.0 has more technical polish than the 2001 version — and goes more boldly for the jugular with its macabre effects.

At Morehead Street, actors made entrances rolling in under the plastic, an arrival akin to Cokes rumbling out of a vending machine, provoking unintended laughter. No such blunders break the spell this time around, and the cast is nearly always superb. Mark Sutton reprises his role as the crazed Murderer in the two-part “Tell-Tale Heart.” His interrogators in Part 2 are still robotic, impassively sheathed in sunglasses, and Kafkaesque, but Mary Pingree’s surreal set design amplifies the eeriness. There’s nothing off-hand — or merely narrated — about the Murderer butchering the body of the Old Man. We get the blood and the body parts through the wizardry of lighting designer David Fillmore, sound designer Colin Powers, and props maestro Peter Smeal.

Technical trappings are also improved in “The Cask of Amontillado,” where Debra Mein as the masked Montresor achieves vengeance against the rich, plump, plutocratic harlequin Fortunato, staggering merrily to his doom — in a wine cellar that becomes his sepulcher. A bravura portrayal by Matt Cosper, marking his welcome return to Charlotte.

The next time Poindexter tackles Poe, say in 2023, I hope he’ll do a better job differentiating the four stanzas of “The Bells” — and discard the bell-ringer concept. Doesn’t work. But the other poetry is very vivid, including “The Raven,” where Scott A. Miller, the Old Man in “Tell-Tale Heart,” need only add an outer layer of loungewear to greet his avian guest. The two roles played by Casi Harris also have a kinship, as she floats into the same chamber as the Raven, dressed in a scarlet negligee as the “lost Lenore” after stalking another obsessive Poe narrator — Cosper again in excellent form — as the imperishable “Annabel Lee.”

Just one more and it’s done for Amy Steinberg’s one-woman comedy musical, Oh My God Don’t Stop, taking over Petra’s Piano Bar and Cabaret this coming Sunday after playing to three packed houses in February and another one two weeks ago. Steinberg plays five different people — young and old, male and female — whose connections to one another become gradually more obvious as the hour-long show progresses. Or if somebody hands you a program. Don’t count on it.

Not that these connections are that crucial when Steinberg hits peak form and her characterizations are so screamingly funny. There’s Jamie Hymen, a teenager in dire need of the various messages we hear from the others, including her Jewish Floridian bubbie, Roberta, and her grandpa Morty. More outré are Southern-fried sex-ed teacher Mary Frager, who fires up some wonderful AV to support her teen lecture, and her estranged husband, Reverend Bobby.

The Rev is one wicked piece of work, caped and coiffed like Elvis, preaching into a crucifix microphone and encouraging the Eves of the world to forsake the apple in favor of the “One-Eyed Serpent,” which offers more of a bang. Weirder still is the one non-mortal in Steinberg’s gallery, God: revealed unto us as a glib nightclub singer in an outrageous wig. Gender aside, I would have described this Almighty as a cross between Johnny Carson’s all-knowing swami and Groucho Marx. Admitting that free will may have been “over the top,” He/She has an offbeat all-of-the-above way of advocating contraception. We sing along a refrain that includes “wrap that weenie” in a song that’s called “Turn Gay.” See, we have options!

Parts of Oh My God seem relatively embryonic, brief snips leading nowhere, despite the fact that Steinberg has been performing it since 2005. If this were a work-in-progress, I’d counsel snipping 5-10 minutes with a weed-eater, fleshing out the storyline, and granting us more of the wacky Fragers and God to give us a show that’s 20 minutes longer overall. Let off-Broadway audiences try to resist that package!

Maybe sensing that there’s a void to be filled, Steinberg sat herself down at the piano after the show and sang three extra songs. She had introduced the regular pianist earlier, when she was God: “There’s my son, Jesus H. Christ!” We gave him a round of applause, but I could imagine Bubbie and Zayde Hymen shaking their heads in disapproval down in Boca Raton.

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