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Magic and Mayhem 

From burlesque to George Bernard Shaw, Triangle theater keeps the pot stirring in three new productions

"I do have something of a background." Lissa Brennan, regional live arts writer, actor with Shakespeare & Originals, and founder of a performing group called Dog and Pony Show, is talking about her career. In burlesque.

"I had a modern dance background," she says, and quickly adds, "a legit modern dance background. And then, as a young girl just a few years back, I supported myself between 19 and 22 by dancing in nightclubs."

Another quick addition follows. "Not girly clubs. Not strip bars. Nightclubs, like Limelight."

She stops to think for a moment, before admitting, "OK, go-go dancing may not be the same as burlesque. But as a child I grew up with my grandparents, and I think my sensibilities were very formed by two people who were at their prime in the 1940s. I spent a lot of time watching Ginger Rogers movies, Abbot and Costello movies, Mae West movies. I think I developed a lot of my sense of humor from that.

"I like burlesque," she says. "I like that it is bawdy, without being brazen."

This weekend, Brennan's company presents PEEP, a self-styled vaudeville and burlesque review. It's 10 acts for one price: a variety show of comedy, music, magic and mayhem--plus a calculated exposition of female human flesh. Friday and Saturday evening's performances include an edifying exhibition of the belly dance from a 20-year master of the genre.

We are also informed that there will be a tribute to that timeless form, the strip tease.

Jay O'Berski and Jeffery Scott Detwiler will revisit the physical humor of the vaudevillian characters they created in last season's smash, A Mouthfulla Sacco and Vanzetti, after regional magician Joshua Lozoff, who performs under the stage name Deep Magic, does a series of close-up card tricks. The company will illustrate Maureen McMullen-Munter's rendition of "Big Spender," before suave Derrick Ivey, who proved he could croon during March's performance of Prufrock, sings "Accentuate the Positive."

Brennan, whose company brought A Kathakali Macbeth to the North Carolina Museum of History last winter, hopes to make a regular series out of PEEP, and is still looking for variety artists for future installments of the show. Version 1.0 plays this weekend only, at Manbites Dog Theater.

Poetic and grim are the words to describe A Mislaid Heaven, Carson Grace Becker's moving but uneven Celtic/Pagan variation on Romeo and Juliet set in Ireland in 1921. The Open Door Theatre Company's current show at BTI's Kennedy Theater is the first Raleigh outing for this Chapel Hill-based company. With the admitted excesses of Becker's script, Heaven's road is not an easy one. In the final analysis, though, it's still worth the trip.

In Becker's play, Samuel and Ruth are teenage misfits in a small Irish fishing village, moon children with more than a touch of the poet between them. They court without courting, by trading stories in which they effortlessly weave the quotidian with the uncanny. At one point Ruth earnestly asks Samuel if he's seen the Night Mare--that fictive beast, the bearer of bad dreams. By the time Jennifer Hirsch and Kit FitzSimons have finished weaving their own spell as the young pair, we halfway expect to see the Night Mare ourselves.

But there's tragedy afoot, and the young couple's magic will be sorely tried, first by the smallest of small-town secrets, a mystery between Ruth's mother, Maeve, and Father Jarell, the village priest. Then the local cell of the Irish Republican Army steps in.

It's good to see Dorothy R. Brown get a workout here as the severe Maeve, a woman for whom love and spirituality must be fundamentally intertwined with subterfuge. Her chemistry with Hirsch is spot-on, and when dramaturge Anthony Fichera as Father Jarell is on stage with them, a congress of secrets is in session.

But Becker missteps in places, as does this interpretation. Turns of phrase are sometimes more precious than poetic, and at times characters get more caught up in allegedly fantastic yarns than the audience ever does. Obvious plot devices detract, particularly in Act Two, and the playwright's love of intricate small-town secrecy muddies selected plot points. The creaking mechanisms involved make one or two scenes seem devised just to wring more misery out of the proceedings, before a funereal final scene directed by Jay Putnam as a descent into cheap sentimentality.

But the Troubles were no cakewalk. And the merits of Becker's script are as obvious as the demerits listed above. When the focus is on mother to daughter or lover to lover, Becker's script rings true. Even if Heaven isn't all we might wish, the relationships at its center still make it worth the trip.

An obscure object of desire is one thing; an obtuse one is quite another. Take it from me, they don't come much denser than Raina and Sergius, the doggedly noble and absurdly Romantic lovers whose exploits form the skewed center of George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man.

Shaw lets the idealized lovers mouth the inanities of Victorian England's accepted idealisms concerning war, love and selected short subjects in between. The moment they have finished, the master satirist and social iconoclast rigs events to give up the lie in the most expediently embarrassing way possible. The result is an unlikely marriage of stagecraft with bowling: Shaw sets 'em up and knocks 'em right back down again.

Katja Hill and Roman Pearah's arch portrayals of Raina and Sergius complement one another and give this Deep Dish Theater production much of its savor. As Sergius' outdated and conveniently one-sided sensibilities grow ever more offended by events, Pearah's catalog of physical tics goes into overdrive. Eyebrows are not raised so much as hoisted. Nostrils flare. Pearah's jawbone almost deserves separate billing in a supporting role at points as he stalks around on stage. Similarly, Hill's credulous interpretation as Raina is a wide-eyed treat.

Together, they're a pair in serious need of disenchantment--a commodity Shaw is more than willing to provide in abundance by the end of this social comedy. Christa Phillips' set design does not conceal the limitations of Deep Dish's storefront space in Chapel Hill's University Mall, and the cast at times seems more to be playing with characters than inhabiting them. Even if it can be argued that Shaw does the same at points in Arms and the Man, it's not necessarily a good idea to draw our attention to it. EndBlock

Contact Byron Woods at byron@indyweek.com.

  • From burlesque to George Bernard Shaw, Triangle theater keeps the pot stirring in three new productions.

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