One's a full-scale pageant, whose oversized characters roam the amphitheater where an audience of hundreds sits. The other is the kind of up-close and personal theater associated with Common Ground and Manbites Dog—but in a space a fraction of the size of those already modest rooms: 33 chairs around an area maybe 20-by-10 feet, in a studio just large enough for four young men to reframe a Shakespearean classic.
This is theater at the extremes—and two examples of the bandwidths regional companies are effectively using. When shows this diverse define the outer margins of local drama at the start of a new season, we're optimistic about what's to come.
The Living Sea of Memory
Paperhand Puppet Intervention
Forest Theater through Sept. 7
N.C. Museum of Art Sept. 11 & 12
The Living Sea of Memory marks Paperhand Puppet Intervention's 10th year staging summer spectacles in Chapel Hill's Forest Theater. Inevitably, their show's narratives are a set of simple, poignant—if at times politically tinged—calls to our better natures: Respect the earth. Share its resources. Don't fight. At their best, they persuade us that Robert Fulghum was right: The hardest lessons to apply are the ones we learned in kindergarten.
This year's pageant focuses on myths surrounding beginnings and endings. Creation myths from different parts of the globe—the Babylon Enûma Eliš and the Mayan Popul Vuh—open and close this vividly realized production.
In the Enûma Eliš, Tiamat and Apsû, nature gods, are ultimately killed by their own creations. The excerpt from the Popul Vuh concludes praising the People of Corn, "found whenever people come together to help one another." Colorful gods and monsters—traditional multi-person, multi-story puppets of fabric, wood and papier-mâché—fill the stage in the first piece. The Popul Vuh's characters are depicted by shadow puppets on a center stage screen.
Between them, The Quest places the Iron John story on a grizzled knight, hunter and musician, before a section simply titled Memory recalls everyday experiences company members have had with people now gone.
Memory's testimony is uncomplicated and direct. People wearing puppet heads enact simple haikus of compassion with one another. When their character dies, the puppeteers slowly lift the head upward, then hold it, and place it on the ground. Later, the heads of old ones are lifted, and transferred to those who had played their sons and daughters—a very moving manifestation that what we consider ends are actually transitions.
Raleigh Ensemble Players
Reopens Aug. 20-30
The sprung floor is still being built at Raleigh Ensemble Players' new space at 213 Fayetteville St., so they were forced to change plans for their inaugural productions this fall. In what REP calls their "August of Adventure," the company is simultaneously mounting the first two shows in alternate venues.
Shakespeare's R&J is staging in a completed rehearsal studio on the second floor of their new building. Meanwhile, their main stage production of Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman's celebrated retelling of Greek myths, will place gods and mortals in a 25-foot pool of water this weekend only at Cardinal Gibbons School. Shakespeare's R&J goes dark this weekend, resuming Thursday, Aug. 20, through Saturday, Aug. 30. Though admission for R&J is free, reservations are mandatory.
Though director Glen Matthews' call for "local professional theater (in) the heart of downtown—where it belongs" was enthusiastically applauded, some wondered if we'd see it here, at point-blank range, in a room so small that audience members were gently cautioned against placing their feet too far outside the floor space taped off for their chairs.
The answer to that question would be an unqualified yes. Joe Calarco's brilliant but daunting adaptation frames Shakespeare's text in a surreptitious production among four prep school brats at a conservative boarding school. At the start, they recite the hypotenuse of a triangle as mindlessly as they do the clueless misogyny of an 1880s etiquette book—rote lessons from their daytime classes. What's missing? Passion, which is smuggled in through a dog-eared edition of Romeo & Juliet, bound in a long, red cloth.
The four take on Shakespeare first as a prank, then as a dare. But somewhere, the group stops ridiculing the text. The female characters lose their Monty Python air of mockery; the fate of two lovers becomes more important. By R&J's ambiguous end, all have learned something about vulnerability and the alleged chasm between the sexes.
We applauded Jack Benton's entirely believable Juliet, besotted with first love. Shawn Stoner's character was a strong agent provocateur, goading his fellows into unexplored territory. Ryan Brock's student embodied Tybalt's confident assassin, before chafing at playing Juliet's nurse. Though L.A. Rogers seemed a bit flat in his opening Friar Lawrence monologue on Friday, he gave the character formidable authority afterward. We looked to his student when gauging how far the group was from genuinely approaching the women's world.
Sightlines in this theater-in-the-round approach sometimes obscured actors, and the red cloth, this show's main prop, didn't clearly symbolize all it was supposed to. Still, the fidelity in the acting and direction makes R&J a pick for those who like theater up-close and intense.