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Carolina Ballet adjusts its spectacles at season close, while deep-bench Coals cheat reaper

Once upon a time not very long ago, I would have been writing these words right about now from Ocracoke--or not, if you get my drift. At the end of spring semester, theater would have already packed it in for the summer, save a spasm here or there around July. ADF? Brewing, but not yet ready to boil.

So take the week off--or the month. Pack the swim trunks, cooler, shades and sandals, a couple of good novels--and not a lot more--into the car, and set the controls to the beach, that mythic land where, to paraphrase Camus, the sun turns the body into hard and hollow bronze.

Now? Fugeddaboutit. There's been more stuff to see all month than space to write about it. And that was before developments came up out of town.

Time to catch up just a bit.

No sooner had I finished my first words about Deep Dish Theater's Lobby Hero than I got the word that Jeri Lynn Schulke had been injured in a car accident and wouldn't be able to continue. In the aftermath, Deep Dish went dark for a week, while frantically training Meredith Sause to take her place in the role of Dawn, a rookie New York cop who's probably trusted the wrong superior officer.

No actor wants to see a critic in the house nine whole days after learning they're the new lead in a four-character play. For that matter, no critic wants to judge a show under such circumstances. As a result, we didn't catch Lobby Hero version 2.0 until last Sunday afternoon.

While in some ways it wasn't the production's fault, Lobby Hero was still one of those shows where the fit of the costumes--and the characters--seemed wrong on the actors. Either they didn't fit--or they fit all too well.

Leave John Allore, who played sleazy top cop Bill, out of the equation for a moment. Under Paul Frellick's direction, Allore plays him as a real smoothie, a grandmaster-wannabe who's into rationalization, manipulation and intimidation. The only thing that keeps Bill from being a total monster is the fact that he's just not competent enough to keep all the scams going simultaneously.

But Schulke and Sause's varying takes on Dawn overemphasize the opposite ends of her character. Unsurprisingly, Schulke's original version gave Dawn a titanium shell--which left her in her later moments about as vulnerable as a Humvee. Sause, on the other hand, gets the vulnerable moments right, but armors Dawn's other side with a tinny, false bravado.

To some degree, both actors played to tendencies we've seen on stage before from them--although, to be completely fair, one had about a month's more rehearsal time than the other.

The same must be observed for Kevin Poole, a talented actor who is beginning to run the risk of being labeled a character actor of narrowing bandwidth. Yes, we do buy his interpretation of Jeff, the 20-something rent-a-cop who just might--or might not--be staging a turn-around in an aimless life. The character wheedles, whines and tells the boss what he wants to hear--at least, part of the time.

Still, it's a character whose fundamental traits we've seen before from Poole, on one too many occasions. The next time we see a variation on slacker impotence from him on stage, we're going to wonder if it's truly all he's capable of delivering--and if so, can we really call it acting?

Finally, Torrey Lawrence convinces us of his character's discomfort as William, Jeff's superior and erstwhile moral guide. In Lawrence's work we witness the humorless supervisor, the moral man in a bind and the compromise he makes; we get the notes of frustration and anger when Jeff won't stop joking about a deadly serious issue. Lawrence's character builds believably--but only to a point.

However we don't believe Kenneth Lonergan's script, or Lawrence and Frellick's interpretation of what happens when Jeff inadvertently corners himself into ratting William out to the police. Is tearing off Jeff's badge really the only thing that character is capable of at that moment? Is his rage truly so shallow?

Similarly unsatisfying was Wordshed's latest outing, the John Cheever omnibus, What a Paradise It Seems. This second staging of Cheever's works in as many summers from the troupe relies too heavily on the previously (but differently adapted) short story The Swimmer as the production's through-line. Though not as successful, Paradise evokes a stronger sense of place than last year's Shady Hills. This is probably due more than anything else to the initial and closing frames of urban banality tinged with darkness around the edges, and the accomplishments of the middle sequence, The Enormous Radio.

When a new radio accidentally starts tuning in the private lives of all their neighbors, actor Hannah Blevins' character realizes what lies under the veneer of upper-middle-class society in their prestigious community. The eavesdropping at first amuses, before the darker realizations ultimately find their way back home.

Though the one-act gives food for thought, even actors the caliber of Katja Hill and Jordan Smith tire when attempting to pull off an entire neighborhood of different voices. The result leaves Radio interesting, but understaffed.

Chris Chiron and Sarah Kocz's duet in The Five-Forty-Eight proved a sketchy tale of executive boorishness and its comeuppance.

But literalizing The Swimmer on stage sabotages much of the story's curious charm. It's something of an urban horror story, one whose charm comes predominantly from the terror we can't see, or one that, at best, we only catch a glimpse of. Indirectly, through nuance and occasional observation, we slowly realize that during a foolish afternoon swim back home, a man has stepped completely out of time, aged years or decades, and lost his family, his house and former life.

But Spangler's adaptation leaves nothing to the imagination, underlining the title character's change by dividing the role between himself, Chiron and Smith. Horror's most effective when it's insidious, when you can't quantify the change or where it comes but you know you're someplace different--not when you hit it like a speed bump at cruising velocity, as happens here.

You could hear them sharpening the long knives last week, firing up the grill. Who? Just the theater's most jealous--as opposed to best--in the area. This, after we reported that Burning Coals producer Jerome Davis' fourth production--of the month--was about to open at Kennedy BTI. Lynn Nottage's mid-century African-American memoir, Crumbs from the Table of Joy, bowed in Raleigh last Thursday, the same night the Coals began their closing weekend of Travesties at Piccolo Spoleto in Charleston, S.C.

A challenging situation, without doubt--so much so in fact that one or two small souls out there were betting high against the proposition. Selected chatter from the field had it that they'd overplayed their hand, no one's got a bench that deep, etcetera, etcetera. Funny thing: We'd swear some of the voices haven't proven able to produce four competent shows in the same year. Or two.

This couldn't have been what Irving Berlin really meant by those immortal words, There's no people like show people, they smile when they are low.

Word to the haters: Put away the steak sauce. You won't be using it on this show.

Under Carmen-Maria Mandley's direction, a family that's been injured huddles together in the uncertain shelter of Jennifer Becker's drafty 1950s Brooklyn tenament set. The Crumps--father Godfrey and his two daughters, Ernestine and Ermina--have moved there from Florida, to escape racism and the lack of opportunity. They've moved to escape the death of Godfrey's wife, at the behest of their father's one lighthouse in a sea of troubles: a radio and newspaper holy-roller named Father Divine, who sponges a poor and ignorant flock to keep him in Dusenbergs.

Crumbs recounts Ernestine's coming of age, and Nottage's script has her repeatedly bridging us back and forth from an earlier time. Actor Rowena Johnson does so with relish, supplying us with ironic glimpses ahead and rueful snips of what she ultimately learns in the scenes. Her chemistry with Lucinda Harris as younger sister Ermina, is as deeply accurate as the interactions between both sisters and their father. Vaughn Michael plays Godfrey as a good man with one thing in life left to cling to--the belief that a spiritual huckster personally cares about him and his family and, should they prove worthy, will personally guide them out of their personal wilderness.

If the Garden of Eden had its serpents, so does Brooklyn. Renee Sallee plays Lily, the deceased wife's sister, a Harlem free-thinker, hard drinker, Communist Party activist and opportunist who mooches off Godfrey while occasionally raising his daughters. Though Sallee's jazz nuances convince, her range beyond them comes off less certain. Hope Hines persuades as the brittle, desperate and loving Gerte, a German woman who falls into the family in act two.

Nottage's script winds up a warm, but still unsentimental tribute to survival, despite misplaced faith in politics, religion and people. The ending remains problematic, in which an Ernestine graduating from high school seems to leave home permanently on the same day, before skating through the next few decades in a warp-speed monologue. Given the substantial narrative duties she bears, too many of Johnson's lines are directed from the far corner of the back of the stage--a place where they're not always heard, particularly given Jared Coseglia's sound design. The title slides and images separating various scenes, imaginatively projected on a torn old billboard, speed past at points without time for them to register.

But these technical notes do not compromise the matrix of human relationships at the center of this play. They ensure that these Crumbs actually make a full theatrical meal.

Carolina Ballet closed their season last week with The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. In this all-ages mix, a children's reading of The Ugly Duckling shared stage with a somewhat more sophisticated Nightengale and a darker, more adult reading of The Shadow.

As was the case in December's Nutcracker, the emphasis frequently is on spectacle in this triptych, with frequently brilliant effects outweighing the actual dance on more than one occasion. Credit librettist/choreographers Robert Weiss and Damien Woetzel for imaginative music selection, particularly in Weiss' ballet, The Shadow. Alfred Sturgis' faithful rendering of Faure's luminous Pavane, sections of Ligeti's all but atonal Cello Concerto, and Rachmaninoff's dark Vocalise accompanied the metaphor of a man who ultimately becomes his shadow's shadow. Timour Bourtasenkov plays the shadow with conviction and his work on stage charms as it takes on the melodrama of evil. As Poet, Mikhail Nikitine's reserve serves well, as does that of Lelissa Podcasy as the embodiment of poetry itself. Choreographer Woetzel puts her to good use as well in the opening Nightengale, as a mechanical bird who takes on the aspect of Death itself. Nikitine's cold work as the King of Winter in the closing Ugly Ducking is as choreographically fruitful as Jeff A. R. Jones and A. Christina Giannini's shimmering blizzard of silver and gold fabric, spun about by a phalanx of dancers--perhaps the most entrancing vision in the performance.

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  • Carolina Ballet adjusts its spectacles at season close, while deep-bench Coals cheat reaper

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