A Lesson from Aloes
Deep Dish Theater Company
Through Nov. 10
The dry seasons—real and metaphorical—invite comparison. There's the years-long drought that clings to the South Africa of 1963 in Athol Fugard's play and our present one, an early dividend of global warming. There's the moment of ebb tide that this work documents in the political resistance to apartheid in the playwright's homeland—and a possibly similar exhaustion and doubt felt closer to home, as an unpopular but unstoppable political administration grinds inexorably on, with no apparent relief in sight.
So it's also important to recall that apartheid was widely condemned around the world—but still very much in place—as Fugard wrote this remembrance of the bad old days in 1980. Aloes is certainly no warm bath of nostalgia. It depicts, with commendable sensitivity, the high human price of activism and its aftermath in one family and among a group of friends, after a political crackdown—and an anonymous informant—lands one of them in jail and sends a goon squad out, late one night, to read and confiscate the private journals of another's wife.
Under Joan Darling's measured direction, Piet (Tony Lea) seems a nearly weightless, eviscerated man, but one who hasn't entirely abandoned the ideals that once drove him. Newcomer Kerry Shear's Gladys is wounded, fragile and furious at the violation that has endangered her mental health. Returning to the regional stage, Dante Walker is mesmerizing as Steve, an activist just released from prison and about to go with his family into voluntary exile.
In commenting upon the equally metaphorical aloe plants which Piet collects, Gladys sharply asks, "Is that the price of survival in this country? Thorns and bitterness?" Fugard's answer includes long taproots, thick skin—and the patience to see things through. —Byron Woods
Over the Rainbows
Through Oct. 28
In this musical penned, directed and composed entirely by Durham's Michael Penny, the old becomes new again as the tunes of Gershwin and Porter are given a makeover. This isn't to say that Penny rips his score straight from the masters, but rather that he takes a giant cue from them, filling his musical with classy piano rolls and jazzy interludes.
It's really the music that takes center stage, as Penny himself holds forth as a smoky-jazz club entertainer on Ringside's cracked, checkerboard floor, which is topped by a baby grand surrounded by a few bar stools and a large vase filled with white roses. Most of the play occurs here, with Penny taking on the role of Henry, a gay man whose latest obsession is finding a butch straight man to make over. Along with his husband Buddy (the amusing Kevin Garofalo), Henry encounters a mechanic named ... Butch (Tim Barnard) and decides to make him over for the annual gay pride parade.
The tension spun from this makeover—Butch's desire to remain straight and saturated in predisposed notions of manliness, and Henry's pushing and prodding toward an enlightened, redefined persona as a metrosexual—creates a palpable sense of drama. But while the premise of Penny's play is hilarious, it is so rooted in popular culture (most obviously Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) that the play ultimately loses its bite. While sexual innuendo—jokes about who's a top and who's a bottom, and clichés surrounding the pride parade—are humorous the first time around, they become tedious as they're beaten to death.
Failed humor aside, Penny must be credited for his ability to look at both ends of the spectrum: There is an equal share of straight jokes to balance the gay gags. And even if the jokes run dry before the play reaches its finale, the stamina of this play truly comes from its musical center. Penny clearly has a craft for composing Broadway tunes, and the homespun melodies will keep you humming for days. —Kathy Justice
The Pajama Game
Sheafer Theater, Duke
Through Oct. 28
Spend an afternoon plugged into TV Land and you'll begin to think that sexual politics in the 1950s were as mild as a bowl of sugar and cream. But just when you place the past on a pedestal, a revived musical from the era blows it all up. So it goes with the latest production from Duke University's Hoof 'N' Horn company as they present The Pajama Game, the bawdy 1954 musical that wraps most of its steamy and colorful numbers around sex. Yes, that's right, sex.
Of course, a play penned in the 1950s simply couldn't market itself solely around the concept of coitus—it had to disguise its underpinnings. Accordingly, Richard Adler and George Abbott's celebrated tale wraps its narrative around a labor dispute in the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where ill will is brewing, thanks to a production crunch that forces workers to produce more but get paid less. But the play's true focus is the budding romance between a strong-willed union girl named Babe (played by a delightfully demure Katie Lee) and the new factory superintendent Sid (a seductive Ross Goldstein). They create a sexual tension that is the centerpiece of most of the play.
Still, the biggest amusements stem from the anecdotes set up by relations between the sexes, and are further accentuated by the brightly colored costumes and carefully choreographed musical numbers (designed by Angela Silak) where the ladies swivel their hips, bat their eyes and smack their lips as the men follow them in hot pursuit. Of special note is the spicy chart-topping hit "Steam Heat," where three girls perform a burlesque striptease to rouse support for the union.
The careful direction of Mike Ayers is the glue holding this large production together, and he has organized his cast's performances into bits of standup comedy that ultimately float the play. The mixture of Ayers' modern eye with Adler and Abbott's imperishable script reveals there's a lot to laugh about when it comes to sex—and that goes for any generation. —Kathy Justice
Battleworks Modern Dance Company
Reynolds Theater, Duke
What did it take to get me through the door for choreographer Robert Battle's contribution to Duke's Following Monk festival? Just the vivid memory of American Dance Festival students caught up in composer Victor Goines' wicked hard-bop grooves during a showing of the opening movement of the choreographer's Bassline, on a hot July afternoon in the Ark two years ago.
Once again I watched as an ad hoc clump of hipsters stood, each looking downward to the side, focused only on the propulsive beat of a tightrope bass and drum duet. When that first off-beat stab of horns and winds stepped up the tension, for a moment the dancers punctuated the visual stillness as well; their hands and legs suddenly flung up or out, as their bodies twisted at hips, knees, shoulders, elbows. Immediately thereafter, though, the crew reverted to a tense, toe-tapping accompaniment before instantly convulsing to the band's next exhortation.
Illustrated music, in short—and all the more challenging due to the pace, the polyrhythms and the complex dissonances of Goines' big band chart. (Small wonder that dancer Erika Pujic's character angrily eyed the audience with folded arms at one point, as her left foot tap-tap-tapped impatiently to the music.)
But in Battle's hands, illustrated bop becomes a series of Robert Longo paintings come to life. The dancers don't seem animated by the music so much as shot through with it; their bodies riddled by sucker-punch rim shots and stingers from the brass, roughed up and bumrushed by roustabout jazz itself. The music is dancing them, not vice versa—and it's not being terribly gentle about it. Gazing on with envy, we know without doubt: When the music's that hot, it looks and feels like this.
When such illustrations are taken to extremes—say, a different finger movement or facial expression for every 32nd note—this approach can be played for the kind of laughs it got during the evening's world premiere of Ella, a brief solo for dancer Marlena Wolfe to the jubilant scat singing of Ella Fitzgerald in concert. But in this lesser effort, the earlier sense of sophisticated wit seemed too reduced to mugging and slapstick by the end, while several distinctive motifs from earlier were revisited without much in the way of further exploration.
Still, such a coda didn't eclipse the subtleties of Promenade, whose intricate moves to John Mackey's jittery strings and percussive piano seemed to probe the similarities between the refinements of social dance and lower-caste—or, actually, barnyard—negotiations. Samuel L. Roberts' jackknife technique recalled the work of Elizabeth Streb, as his torso flew up off the floor only to crash down upon it again before ricocheting in pursuit of more pliant partners. Excellent animals all, indeed. —Byron Woods