Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Kenan Theater, UNC-CH
Through July 1
I really wish I only had to talk about the design and adaptation of Rob Hamilton's new show. On those levels, his version of Dai Sijie's enchanting 2000 novel is basically unassailable. Indeed, many have justifiably respected Hamilton's talents for years now in regional productions with StreetSigns, Wordshed, Manbites Dog and Deep Dish Theater.
True to form, nothing disappoints with the costumes, the set, the puppets that we see, or the music that we hear. Audience members knew the pitfalls of the prideful village Headman, Four-Eyes, the noodgy fellow student exile, and Four-Eyes' Mother as much on sight, from Hamilton's amusing mask work and costuming, as from the substantive work of esteemed actors Mariette Booth, John Paul Middlesworth and Philip van Lidth de Jeude. Audience members gasped at the shimmering visage of the Air and Fire Elementals, graciously and silently embodied by Mara Thomas and Sage Keene.
There is some technical difficulty among the lead actors. For all of Sam Whisnant's professional credits, he was completely inaudible as Luo, a high school student exiled during Mao's Cultural Revolution to the remote province of Phoenix Mountain. Scott Nicholson, as his unnamed companion, fared little better in such instances.
In terms of direction, we also questioned the emotional development in scenes where Luo abandons the titled seamstress (Rita Glynn), and her emotional content in a subsequent scene where he reappears. In both places, actors seem to be reporting events rather than experiencing them themselves; narrating more than acting.
But the main difficulty with this production comes in how the more fantastical parts of Hamilton's vision fit into the grittier realities of Dai's novel that he also tries to convey. Why don't the Air Elemental, the narrating sow (given a tastefully catty reading at points by Danielle Koppel), or the Four Sorcerers who come to heal Luo have more credence, more weight, more place on stage? Perhaps because the other characters on stage don't sufficiently give them these things either.
Only the Seamstress' dog (Koppel as well) and the vengeful—and risible—spirit of the buffalo, who plagues Four-Eyes with tummy troubles after he's been sacrificed and eaten, gets much notice by anyone in Luo's world. Too many of the rest too often seem invisible. Brief exceptions come in a snowfall and an idyllic—and fateful—river scene.
But, for whatever reason, the ideologically preoccupied villagers aren't sufficiently haunted by their ghostly guests—and hosts. It doesn't seem a world where they're allowed to be. Would that they were. —Byron Woods
The Full Monty
Raleigh Little Theatre
Through June 24
Transferring a hit film to the stage is never an easy feat, but writer Terrence McNally and musician David Yazbek have created a foolproof formula in their adaptation of 1997's Academy Award-nominated hit The Full Monty. And just as the film came with an R rating, the play also comes with a warning tag for foul language, nudity and obscenity. But oh, what fun such lewd behavior can be!
Sitting in an afternoon showing of Raleigh Little Theatre's The Full Monty, a mild-mannered audience came alive as they chuckled, gasped and guffawed their way through two hours and 25 minutes of this tale of laid-off factory workers and their scheme to earn money through striptease. This scenario sets up gender conflict as the play's central point of humor. But inherently, this provides a problem: It's impossible not to laugh at the men, but female performers such as Rose Martin as the bawdy Chippendale enthusiast Georgie, and Kristen Elizabeth McCabe as bitter divorcee Pam, win over the audience.
Still, the play is full of the locker-room humor, dirty dance moves and nudity that fueled the film, and in that brassy realm it's a major success. —Kathy Justice