A 20th anniversary dance concert and one last stage play in a shabby but venerable old theater before it closes for major renovations: If the victory lap was invented for anything, surely such occasions come near the top of the list.
And certainly, there was no shortage of qualities to celebrate in UNC Modernextension's annual concert and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, N.C. State University Theatre's final production in old Thompson Theatre, the two milestone productions that opened last weekend.
In the latter work, we felt the sang-froid of a student actor's triumph as the Marquise de Merteuil, the aristocratic provocatrice whose world-class intrigues ultimately engineer the downfall of a quintet of characters. Meanwhile, in Chapel Hill, guest dancer Shain Stodt resurrected selected works by Isadora Duncan, prior to the world premiere of a strong new work by Marian Turner Hopkins.
But in both productions there remain reasons enough to hold the champagne until further notice.
As the scheming marquise in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Meisha Gourley effectively embodies the icy amusement and the calculation of playwright Christopher Hampton's games-player par excellence under Terri Janney's direction. However, the actor clearly is unequally yoked when paired here with R. Andrew Payne, cast as her partner in crimes of the heart, the Vicomte de Valmont.
The night we saw Liaisons, it seemed Payne and Janney hadn't yet probed far beyond a jokiness too near the surface of Valmont's vanity. Last weekend, Payne's Valmont seemed constructed more as satire of self-admiration than a believably seductive threat; a roué interpreted more by Steve Martin than John Malkovich.
Ultimately, Mary Guthrie warmed into the role of the tempted Mme. de Tourvel, but when her early problems are placed alongside Payne's, they speak to a difficulty of long duration on the stage at N.C. State. At a moment when the theater's production facility is about to undergo major renovations, it seems appropriate to petition for an equally necessary upgrade in their training program as well.
We have long admired—in public, and on the record—the achievements John McIlwee and Terri Janney have realized in stage, costume and lighting design. Once again, in this production, the pair do not disappoint. On a set whose alternating squares of red, black and white suggest an old-style board game, McIlwee gives a knowing nod to the fashions of the ancien régime before stripping actors down for a tasteful, goth-influenced upgrade. When Janney places key players under low lights behind a scrim upstage, they gaze eerily down upon scenes they influence—but don't appear in—as figures in various paintings.
A similar degree of sophistication is now called for in further developing and training the actors we see on the University Theatre's stage. We have always been able to count on strong design and costuming in shows at N.C. State. With due respect, we haven't been—and still aren't—always able to count on the acting.
To address this, the program hired what it termed its first "acting coach" about a decade ago—a position held in this production by a program alumna, the estimable Dana Marks.
Now it clearly should go further. An upgraded theater should have in it actors whose abilities have been upgraded as well—through additional systemic coursework and training, by full-time teaching artists whose work fully matches the professional standards of the mainstays named above. Indeed, it makes precious little sense to enhance the Thompson Building without solid plans in place to enhance the programs that will ultimately inhabit it.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
NSCU University Theatre
Through March 31
Given the latest installment of its series of annual concerts, UNC Modernextension faces some difficult choices at this point as well. It's heartening to note that enhanced institutional support from UNC's Office of Performing Arts is now funding efforts like the company's reconstructions of Isadora Duncan's choreography, one of the evening's several highlights.
Now the company has to face the unlearned lesson—the same one that still baffles several other regional and state-wide exhibitions as well. It involves the concept of curation.
Whatever works a dance company puts on stage are inevitably taken as a statement. The choices inevitably comment on their artistic and aesthetic standards—and, ultimately, their competency both as artists and presenters of art works to the public. The choices comment on how seriously the group takes the art form, their place in it: how seriously the group members take themselves as artists and how seriously they take their audience.
With Modernextension, a significant portion of that audience had left by the time the second of three full acts had ended Friday night. For those who couldn't stay, the full concert lasted just under 2 3/4 hours, until 10:41 p.m. It's hard to blame the ones who left early. Too much of what we saw in the show's second and third acts wasn't worth staying for.
When a company does not establish—and maintain—viable minimum artistic standards in what it shows the public, it quickly becomes a vanity; a concern of interest to friends and relatives alone. We saw it happen, in real-time Friday night, when many of those who did not have to stay abandoned the show after the problematic, unaccomplished or recital-grade student dance routines started in the second act.
When a company puts clearly low-grade work on the same playbill as a masterwork by Duncan, it is read as saying that it can't—or doesn't want to—tell the difference between the excellent and the rudimentary. It's read as saying it doesn't care if there's a difference, and it doesn't think the audience cares—cares enough about dance, that is—to see or mind the difference either. It's read as saying one of these works is really just as good as the other, that both should have equal claim to the public's attention and time.
When the public disagrees strongly enough, it leaves. It doesn't always come back later. It happened—again—last Friday night.
Modernextension has proved it can do Duncan. Now it needs to prove it can stop doing worse.
UNC Modernextension 20th Anniversary Concert
Closed March 23
E-mail Byron at email@example.com.