A ghost story in Durham, a Southern racial drama in Raleigh, a coming-out tale in Chapel Hill | Theater | Indy Week
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A ghost story in Durham, a Southern racial drama in Raleigh, a coming-out tale in Chapel Hill 

Roger Rathburn as Atticus Finch and Whitney Madren as Mayella Ewell in "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Photo by Right Image Photography

Roger Rathburn as Atticus Finch and Whitney Madren as Mayella Ewell in "To Kill a Mockingbird"

You could call kabuki playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV the Quentin Tarantino of his day. By incorporating the details of real-life crimes and ancient ghost stories into his tales of social turmoil and violence among the Japanese underclass in the early 1800s, Tsuruya's innovative work focused on the kizewa, the raw, dark side of contemporary life in that period. His world was populated by underworld character types he originated: erotic villains called iroaku and cagey criminal women, the akuba, who were good in a swindle or a street fight.

With cultural touchstones like those, it's not surprising that Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern looked Tsuruya up at the start of their self-styled Japanese season, to revive his classic tale Yotsuya Kaidan in a new adaptation, REDGHOST. This story of lust, murder and revenge from both sides of the grave is big in Japan—having inspired a genre of Japanese horror films and 30 film adaptations. Still, it remains virtually unknown in the United States.

So much the better, though, if you're trying to tell a good ghost story—and REDGHOST is one.

The playwriting collective Ganesha—whose members include Tim Garbinsky, Carolyn McDaniel, John Justice, Alessa Colaianni, Monica Byrne and director Rachel Klem—have cut most of the subplots from the original in transposing the story to a one-act set in the present day. Still, they've preserved subtle social criticism and occasional poetic grace notes amid the stylized blood and gore effectively rendered in selected scenes by effects designers Klem and Chelsea Kurtzman.

For we don't have to look back to the age of the fabled—and doomed—ronin, the samurai who lost their masters, to learn what happens after a culture has won a war and then believes it has no further need for most of the warriors it groomed and used to win the conflict. A glance back to Vietnam—and the conflicts since—will do. The unemployed—and unemployable—search, in the aftermath, for that society's continuing respect with the same desperation that they look for honest labor. When both are withheld, they resort to other measures to achieve their goals.

Hilary Edwards convinces as an Olivia whose love for Jack transforms her in ways she would never have predicted. Monica Byrne is effective, and even poignant at times, as a warrior who believes her identity as "alpha girl" eliminates the possibility of romance. As Olivia's father, Lawrence, Gary Watts is suitably striking and stern, even if his Australian accent clashes with his kimono. John Jimerson portrays Jack as a frustrated rebel, one who's plausibly been denied his due, before he spins into a death spiral of cynicism and resentment.

Though its taut pace is ably interpreted by director Klem, the script by the Ganesha collective occasionally misfires, seemingly skipping over a key transition in a scene where Jack leaves Olivia with friend Andy (J. Alphonse Nicholson). Fortunately, their acting makes that scene particularly skin-crawling.

Tighter tech and lighting would make some of the jolts in REDGHOST even more effective than they presently are. And solo and group movement sequences seemingly based on butoh, the Japanese "dark soul" dance, need judicious editing to prevent drag. Still, this show gives us a lovely case of the creeps by its end.

The audience isn't the only party witnessing the climactic trial scenes in Burning Coal Theatre's production of To Kill a Mockingbird. By the height of those scenes, guest director Randolph Curtis Rand has had both of the show's student backstage interns, in contemporary street clothes, quietly enter and look on from the far left and right corners on the stage.

The message is obvious: One half-century after the publication of Harper Lee's heartfelt chronicle of the small-town South, none of us yet can safely be excused from bearing witness to the atrocities of racial injustice committed on our land—the children, least of all.

This production will tour regional schools. I am glad to report it should. Rand's brisk direction animates a superior ensemble, even as it propels us past the occasional less-than-entirely successful experiment in group performance.

Liz Beckham wins our hearts as a grown-up Jean Louise who fondly looks back and then re-enters the world of her tomboy days as Scout. LeDawna Akins vibrates with the righteous indignation of the sorely tried housekeeper, Calpurnia, while 7th grader Samantha Rahn improbably—but interestingly—shifts between the roles of Dill (the character based on Lee's childhood friend, Truman Capote) and sour neighbor Miss Dubose. Paul Paliyenko, Whitney Madren and Jeff Cheek ably serve in convincing supporting roles.

Rand and actor Roger Rathburn could not succeed by trumping Gregory Peck's work as attorney Atticus Finch in the classic 1962 film. Peck's Atticus was an impregnable tower of virtue—visually and metaphorically. By comparison, Rathburn's attorney is no Olympian. Instead, he's a lot closer to one of us instead; a common-enough man in an uncommon circumstance. He may have a reservoir of courage and ethics, but he's still at times clearly bewildered by the world he lives in. He makes no promises on the odds in the battles between might and right. He only promises he'll fight.

Nothing Pink, Paul Ferguson's adaptation of Raleigh author Mark Hardy's first novel, was in previews last weekend, with daily script revisions and another week of rehearsals to go before its formal opening night this Thursday. Still, the obvious strengths already in place deserve commentary and our recommendation. Hardy's novel is the semiautobiographical account of his harrowing coming of age not only as a gay child but as a preacher's kid growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist (and homosexually intolerant) faith.

Though still working out a few kinks in the text, Ferguson has assembled a strong cast and is already generating real drama on the Swain Hall stage. Sean Casserly is pitch-perfect as an older central character, Vincent, looking back on his younger self (Mason Cordell) with an unassailable mix of compassion, confidence and love. Phil Denny gives Vincent's first crush, Robert, a winning energy, while Andrea Powell is finding the appropriate dissonances in a mother who loves her son but still has strong beliefs he can never fulfill.

Composer and music director Mark Hartman's original music, which opens and closes the work, sparkles with frank and yet affirming observations about faith, love and life.

Assembly is still under way in other parts, but what's already here is strong enough to earn our encouragement.

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