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Feel the fear 

It's no coincidence that Election Day comes so close to Halloween. Frequently on both, the one who convincingly tells the scariest story wins. After all, fear has been a staple of politics since--well, nearly since fear began. Richard Cheney's transparently desperate promise of a nuclear inaugural should Kerry win has nearly outstripped anything Uncle Jesse ever cooked up to scare the crackers back in line. Still, it eerily parallels an earlier King Richard's guarantee: "Yet know my master, God omnipotent, is mustering in his clouds on our behalf Armies of pestilence; and they shall strike your children yet unborn and unbegot."

I quote from Shakespeare's Richard II . A curious production of it now graces Paul Green Theater. The press material from the show hastily disavows any emphasis on the political, claiming instead that Shakespeare's interests in the fall of the Angevin Plantagenet were primarily psychological.

And Shakespeare does plumb the psyche of the monarch--but primarily in act five, we'll argue, by which time Richard is a king no longer. Before that we're largely left to scratch our heads at how a man can seem too clever by half, while his acts still compose a primer in how to lose a kingdom through political, economic and social incompetence.

First, spend your government into a ferocious deficit on foreign, dilatory wars. Solve that problem by upending the status quo. Suspend the civil and economic rights your society is built on--heredity and succession--by banishing opponents, seizing their lands and wealth. When chaos threatens at home, preoccupy yourself with other countries.

Ignore the common man, and mock those who don't. Throughout all, be proud and stubborn. Don't just conflate any critique on your leadership as an attack against country and God--assert all three are roughly interchangeable. Imagine your swift wit--and advisors--will get you out of any jam. When all else fails, rule through fear and divine right.

Before Richard's incarcerated self-inventory in the final act, arguably the sharpest passage in Richard II contrasts the true patriotism of the dying John of Gaunt (in his famous "This England" speech) with Richard's near-Nixonian pragmatics in the scene before. Clearly politics involve a mix of cynicism and deep belief. To the degree Shakespeare probes his characters' minds, it's to get at the psychology of rule, entitlement and politics.

Chandler Williams effectively presents a Richard whose smirking wit and elegance only briefly hide a contempt for all lessers. An invented prologue tips us to the guilty party in the dispute between Anthony Hagopian's Bolinbroke and Jeffrey Blair Cornell's Mowbray, without providing the context of the death of Gloucester.

Kenneth P. Strong's recital of the troubled devotions cited above moves us as John of Gaunt, while Danika Williams' performance is too thin as Richard's Queen. Elsewhere, as the Duchess of York, Tandy Cronyn is curiously directed to seek the king's pardon for her son in comic relief.

We're struck at the end by the utter waste of all in Richard's world. When an immature king ignores his subjects' rights and wields arbitrary power, sewing warfare abroad and discord at home, his thin legacy is one of catastrophic waste: of time and hope, of human potential, of a land's resources and of lives in battle. Those are the cautionary lessons. For both that time and this.

Equally psychological--and political, and all things in between--is Naomi Wallace's harrowing drama In the Heart of America , now running at Raleigh Ensemble Players. In the playwright's at-times confusing time warp of memory, loss and desire, the Vietnam War melts into Desert Storm I on Joe Brack's set of angled platform and taut fabric. As events unfold, two women attempt to track down the soldiers who connect them to deep loss. Fairouz, a Tennessean daughter of Palestinian immigrants, seeks the enlisted man who might have been the last love of her lost brother, Remzi. The enigmatic Lue Ming looks for a clean-cut soldier boy from an earlier time, a lieutenant by the name of Calley.

We meet the ones they seek--in real time and in memory, or the most speculative of hallucinations, as an enigmatic Special Forces man from Phnom Penh winds up in the Persian Gulf, training two raw recruits in interrogation. But this bizarre work ultimately embodies the incompletion each character on stage sustains as a result of war. The five characters stretch, pull and occasionally breach an obscure fabric membrane to get a message through, but at the end loss still reigns supreme.

Wallace's script is extreme in places, but its message is appropriate for this time of war. We applauded Canady Vance's intensity and Brenda Lo's bone-dry humor and commitment, along with Tommy Van Hoang's work as Remzi, Ryan Brock as Craver and Rus Hames as Boxler. You likely will as well.

Since The Tempest is Shakespeare and Original's last production before a one-year hiatus, hie yourself over to Manbites Dog to see an imaginative take on the bard's last work. With Lissa Brennan at the helm, the subtexts are crisp, delicious and thought-provoking. Finally, in Cheryl Chamblee we see a Miranda who actually might have grown up on an island, with some sinew and, incidentally, not entirely enchanted by her father Prospero. Tom Marriott is memorable as Prospero, as is Jordan Smith as a wretched Caliban. But what may provoke the most discussion in this production is the casting of Jackie Marriott as Ariel. The sight of a Haitian earth spirit serving a white magus hits a collection of notes concerning colonialism--but hard. Well worth seeing.

Sure, The Producers has been a Broadway smash since March 2001. Still, since Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are presently otherwise engaged, we thought you'd might like advance word on the version that's actually coming to Raleigh next Tuesday--before, that is, you plunked down your $93 apiece for top tix to the show (service charge included).

We caught it in Charlotte last week. Yeah, you probably ought to see it. The show is a pip, nothing less than a dissertation in the history of comedy, and--give it to 'em--Lewis J. Stadlen and Alan Ruck are at the head of the class as Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom.

Of course, some patrons won't just be comparing their work to that of Lane and Broderick. After all, The Producers was also Mel Brooks' first feature film, and its leads, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, weren't exactly what you'd call chopped liver.

Fans of the flick will note some changes in the stage adaptation. A raucous new scene in Shubert Alley gives our Max his unenviable track record. Those little old ladies on screen seem a lot more predatory than the ones on stage, and a change in plot device excises Dick Shawn's inspired lunacy--along with most of the interior--of Springtime for Hitler, the musical-within-the-musical. And in fairness, this Max is a lot less Mephistophelean than Mostel's.

But the way this musical further opens up Brooks' world--in lunatic musical numbers that take place in Bloom's accounting office, director Roger De Bris' over-the-top townhouse and elsewhere--make it a must for anyone who loved the original.

If there were an Olympics for nostril flaring, mustache twitching and pained, knowing looks of distaste, Stadlen would take bronze, silver and gold respectively. Yes, the old jokes are the best--particularly when delivered with such wincing authority. Alan Ruck is solid as his Milquetoast co-conspirator. Charley Izabella King combines pulchritude with comic ability as Ulla, while Lee Roy Reams and Michael McCormick support as De Bris and Franz Liebkind.

Celebrated costume designer William Ivey Long goes unhinged with the chorus girls from Springtime, and Susan Stroman's choreography--and direction--clearly are a cut above.

It's one of the priciest tickets of the season, but if you're a fan of Mel Brooks and old school comedy, spend the money--and stay for the curtain call.

H ad to mention: Jacqueline Langheim 's heady Hedy, the bombshell secretary, Bill Hoskyn 's weaselly Bud Frump and Ross Buckley's unsinkable Pierpont Finch in Hoof 'n' Horn's H2$; Blake Edwards , who put the brusque but loving "old man" in Old Man's Shoes at UNC's Studio 2; Curtis Kirkhoff, who has a promising career in British comedy from the looks of NC State University Theatre's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and Josh Parker and Khoa Pham 's supporting work in that show; Ochuole Ode , who took no prisoners in Jordan's Piece of My Heart; and comedians Omar Delmoral , Zach Melson and Sam Mohar in Private Wars.

Reviews HHHH Little Women , Theatre Previews at Duke--It only took this show 12 years to round the corner from New York's Seventh Avenue to Broadway's 52nd Street, where it opens after closing here. I predict it's going to stay there for a while. Though this family show has been tweaked toward mass taste--particularly Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein's songs, which veer repeatedly toward Broadway boilerplate--Sutton Foster's exuberance as Jo March gives this show a sense of free spirit and spontaneity.

Allan Knee's book wisely plunges us into Jo's blood-and-thunder melodramas from the start, alternating the frugal realities of family life with the vivid world of her imagination. Susan Schulman's direction is arguably too brisk at points, eliding with Knee over certain plot points.

Jenny Powers is luminous as sister Meg, while Amy McAlexander eerily suggests an eight-year-old going on 65 as selfish sister Amy. Strong character actors Janet Carroll and Robert Stattel support as Aunt March and the curmudgeonly Mr. Laurence.

Maureen McGovern's singing anchors several numbers including "Days of Plenty," conveying the warmth and reserve of Marmee. Elsewhere, Howland and Dickstein score with the witty "Operatic Tragedy" and "Weekly Volcano Press."

Set designer Derek McLane's magic attic turns into French parapets, boarding houses and country gardens. This brisk production successfully shows a vibrant young woman negotiating the precarious passage from adolescence to adulthood while hanging on to dreams of literature and independence. (Reynolds Theater. Through Oct. 31. $35-$5. 684-4444.)

HHH Frankenstein , Temple Theatre--Those who know this story only from those Boris Karloff flicks are in for a shock. The "monster" in David Blakely's script arguably possesses more integrity than the creator who abandons him, first from physical weakness and then apparently on the basis of aesthetics.

There's no shortage of sudden scares and more than a note of Jack Palance in Thomas Dalton's creature, in a show buttressed by strong supporting work from Mark Filiaci, Eric Carl and Bob Barr. Lyrical moments in Jerry Sipp's staging merge fever dream and memory with present action.

But Blakely's script still flirts with Shelley's long-windedness. And since this show presents an ethically weak Dr. Frankenstein who won't claim his "experiment" until it's destroyed everything he values, director Sipp and actor Michael Brocki have replaced the archetypally obsessed, doomed romantic genius with something less compelling: a nice-guy science wonk--sort of--who still runs from his greatest responsibility. (120 Carthage St., Sanford. Through Halloween. $18-$10. 774-4155.)

HH1/2 Jekyll & Hyde, North Carolina Theatre--No, the former teenyboppers who forcibly came of age to the music of Skid Row will have no interest in the news. But Broadway be damned: though he screams, growls--and occasionally even sings--with authority, Sebastian Bach's inconstant voice, at its worst, is one of the thinnest and most nasal I've ever heard in musical theater. His performance in the title role(s?) was similarly off-again, on-again on Sunday afternoon; passionate at points, diffident and flaccid at others, in a production with a weaker supporting cast than usual. Kate Shindle and Tobi Foster's sterling musical work (as the prostitute, Lucy, and Jekyll's bride Emma) rose above the din, while the avuncular William Solo pleased as Emma's father, Danvers Carew. (Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Through Halloween. $60-$20. 831-6950.) x

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