If you could see only one regional theater or dance show this fall, what would it be? It's a tough choice, but one I feel confident making: The nod goes to Carolina Performing Arts' ANTIGONE (Oct. 9 and 10, Memorial Hall, www.carolinaperformingarts.org). In a markedly bold 2015–16 CPA season, it barely edges out SHARA WORDEN's new experimental opera (Nov. 17) and the contemporary butoh of SANKAI JUKU (Nov. 6).
You might wonder what the big deal is about an oft-seen Greek tragedy so soon after Noche Flamenca's flamenco version came to ADF. Simple: The great French screen actor Juliette Binoche plays the lead, and the script is a new translation by poet Anne Carson—Sophocles expert, author of one of my desert-island books (Autobiography of Red) and just generally one of the smartest people alive. Salt those names to taste with your own mental exclamation points. I used seven.
It's also a big season for North Carolina State University's performing arts organization, rebranding itself from NCSU Center Stage to NC State LIVE and returning to a renovated Stewart Theatre. Harnessing this new energy, they're booking against gravity.
Expect thrilling acrobatics from Australian ensemble GRAVITY & OTHER MYTHS (Nov. 5–7, Stewart Theatre, www.ncsu.edu) and California's BANDALOOP (Sept. 17 and 18), whose "vertical dance performance" tilts the stage to the Y axis. Indeed, there's something in the air in Raleigh this fall, as Burning Coal Theatre Company partners with Brooklyn's Only Child Aerial Theatre for the high-flying ASYLUM (Oct. 15–Nov. 1, Murphey School Auditorium, www.burningcoal.org).
Duke Performances lost a quarter of its fall dance and theater programming with the cancellation of Savion Glover and Jack DeJohnette, but the typically eclectic presenter still has plenty to offer. British actor JULIAN SANDS (Oct. 2, Baldwin Auditorium, www.dukeperformances.org)—the lead in the 1985 film adaptation of A Room With a View—portrays Harold Pinter, reading his poetry and remembering his life, in A Celebration of Harold Pinter. Sands developed the solo show in collaboration with the late playwright, and John Malkovich directs. I'm even more pleased to see the pioneering company RENNIE HARRIS PUREMOVEMENT (Oct. 23 and 24, Reynolds Industries Theater), which isn't even the only hip-hop dance on academic stages this season. CPA brings sublime jook dancer Lil Buck to Chapel Hill in April.
The highlight of a reliable season from Carolina Ballet is the premiere of new choreography by Robert Weiss and Zalman Raffael for THE PLANETS (Sept. 24–27, Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, www.carolinaballet.com), Gustav Holst's beloved 100-year-old orchestral suite, where dancers embody a clockwork solar system. And NC Opera puts its best foot forward in season opener MADAMA BUTTERFLY (Oct. 30–Nov. 1, Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, www.ncopera.org), a fully staged production of the soapy Puccini classic, sung in Italian with English supertitles.
The second season from Durham Independent Dance Artists includes some intriguing fall premieres, but for a sure shot, tune in to STATIONS (Oct. 9 and 10, 809 Ramseur St., www.didaseason.com). Why this one? Two reasons: It's the debut evening-length work by The Department of Improvised Dance, a collaboration between accomplished dance artists and DIDA co-founders Leah Wilks and Nicola Bullock with Matthew Young. It also introduces a new venue, Durham Durable Warehouse—the kind of untraditional tabula rasa DIDA thrives on.
Broadway lovers have a fun fall lined up with Broadway Series South's THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS (Oct. 2–4, Fletcher Opera Theater, www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com); the theatrical adaptation of C.S. Lewis' novel has been widely praised as a witty, erudite crowd-pleaser. North Carolina Theater stages Tony-winning musical INTO THE WOODS (Oct. 20–25, Memorial Auditorium, www.nctheatre.com), riding the wake of the flawed but going-for-it Disney movie. Hard to go wrong with Sondheim—or with Monty Python, for that matter. Raleigh Little Theatre's production of Eric Idle's musical, SPAMALOT (Aug. 28–Sept. 13, Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, www.raleighlittletheatre.org) coincides nicely with a visit from Idle himself.
At PlayMakers Repertory Company, I'd be remiss not to tip DISGRACED (Sept. 16–Oct. 4, Paul Green Theatre, www.playmakersrep.org), Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a Pakistani-American lawyer reckoning with his Muslim heritage at a dinner party. But if I'm being honest, I'm most excited about PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (Nov. 18–Dec. 12), a visually ingenious Peter Pan prequel I've been dying to see since the INDY's Zack Smith raved about the Broadway Series South production last March.
The area's smaller theaters have some decidedly non-small shows lined up. Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern puts up the long-awaited full production of THE EMOTIONS OF NORMAL PEOPLE (Dec. 3–19, Durham Fruit Company at 305 S. Dillard St., www.littlegreenpig.com), a devised theater work set to a Kraftwerk soundtrack. I'm also gassed on North Raleigh Arts & Creative Theatre's staging of musical comedy REEFER MADNESS (Oct. 9–25, NRACT, www.nract.org), based on the cult-beloved 1936 scare film. Also on the pop culture end, I'm amped for Anne Washburn's MR. BURNS: A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY (Oct. 22–Nov. 7, Manbites Dog Theater, www.manbitesdogtheater.org), which imagines apocalypse survivors shaping a classic Simpsons episode into a new myth for a failed world. The musical composer's name—no joke—is Bart.
But the real can't-miss play at Manbites is Howard L. Craft's FREIGHT: THE FIVE INCARNATIONS OF ABEL GREEN (Dec. 3–19). The StreetSigns Center production earned a five-star review from INDY theater critic Byron Woods upon its Chapel Hill premiere in January, and it returns for a victory lap after strong New York notices from publications such as The Village Voice. If you missed it then, don't do it again.
Of course, there's more on area stages than theater and dance. Astrophysicist, Cosmos host and talk-show mainstay NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON (Oct. 8, DPAC, www.dpacnc.com) is definitely made of star-stuff: The affable battler of Biblical literalists has already sold out his DPAC date. If you can't get in, don't worry—you'll have something to do the same night. My dark-horse pick is actor Chazz Palminteri's A BRONX TALE (Oct. 8, Carolina Theatre, www.carolinatheatre.org). I've never seen Palminteri's one-man coming-of-age show, though the 1993 film adaptation is the most moving, funny and idiosyncratic of made-guy movies.