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Silent partners 

Pregnant pauses and occasional dead air in an evening of one-acts

click to enlarge Say what? Jordan Smith in Silence by the Masters at Common Ground Theater - PHOTO COURTESY OF GHOST & SPICE THEATER
  • Photo courtesy of Ghost & Spice Theater
  • Say what? Jordan Smith in Silence by the Masters at Common Ground Theater

Judging by the eager, near-capacity crowd in Durham's Common Ground Theater last Saturday, I wasn't the only one who had missed Jordan Smith's presence on the regional stage last year. It was a fitting reception for a man who is, simply, one of our best; an accomplished artist who, for years, has not only gifted a number of independent companies with his talent on stage, but with significant leadership and financial support behind the scenes.

Ghost & Spice Theater responded to Smith's medical dilemma—an inability to project his voice—by searching for substantive plays featuring a significant silent role. But let's be clear: Harold Pinter, August Strindberg and Samuel Beckett, the authors of the one-acts featured here, are not the playwrights one would turn to for an easy victory lap, or the softest of landings after an extended absence on stage. Having to perform one of their complex characters minus one of an actor's chief tools—their voice—substantially elevates the artistic challenge.

It is gratifying to note that this production does indeed mark Smith's triumphant theatrical return. At the same time, his triumph is not universally shared in what ultimately becomes an uneven night.

Yes, the opening work, Pinter's A Slight Ache, starts off as something of a master class in how much an actor can accomplish with sheer physicality, stage presence and facial expressions alone, as Smith's mysterious, mute Matchseller inverts the order in an upper-class British home without lifting a finger. In Pinter's script, Edward (Rick Lonon), a wealthy theological writer living on a comfortable country estate, becomes obsessed with the constant presence of a poor, old and apparently handicapped man who stands just off his property, selling matches.

"What are you going to do with him?" The alarmed question posed by his wife, Flora (Lenore Field), serves to raise the same question facing the culture in which they live. What do they—or we—do with the old, the poor, the handicapped? What, in fact, lies behind the belief that it's our prerogative to "do" anything with them at all—or that we are not them and will never be? Are we living our ethics, bettering society—or just improving neighborhood aesthetics through various cleansing plans?

In our community, where homeless shelter placement has engendered sharp debate in recent months, the questions are hardly academic.

The couple's fruitless interrogations of the matchseller quickly take on an air of desperation. We're struck that, though they seem to be well-off in every way, the pair need this pauper to give them something very much: They ultimately need the matchseller to validate their discourse by entering into it. When he doesn't, it collapses.

Still, Saturday's audience grew bored during middle sections where an unbroken string of Pinter's unanswered questions—or Lonon's performance, directed by Rachel Klem—added nothing new to the characters, the power dynamics or the plot.

Silence by the Masters

Ghost & Spice Theater
Common Ground Theater
More successful was the Strindberg second act, The Stronger. Klem, now on stage, provided an enigmatic turn as a silent stage actress of an earlier generation, whose complex off-stage relationship with a well-dressed woman (Field) sharply twists on several occasions.

Most disappointing was the Beckett finale, Rough for Theater II. Awkward stage placement, which elevated Lonon and Rus Hames away from Smith's mute character, made it impossible to keep all actors in the same visual field. We were constantly distracted as Smith discarded symbols of earthly attachments into a cigar box, and the slapstick signaling the work's close set in before we could effectively lock onto his character's predicament.

We close this time with word of two notable 2006 dance engagements that came too late for our "Year in Dance" datebook of Jan. 3. On Dec. 31, a lithe and wiry JESSICA HARRIS topped the Carolina Friends School concert with ENTFALTUNG, a solo work in progress that took the human body into terra incognita. In it, Harris morphed into an improbable modern art sculpture of sinuous, connecting loops and sudden, chiseled and unfamiliar angles that slowly coiled across the studio floor. The last time we saw a human form that defamiliarized, Shen Wei (with whom Harris dances) was alienating dancer Ariane Reinhart's torso in his 2002 Body Study.

Later that evening, KEVAL KAUR KHALSA and L.D. BURRIS (also known as 2 NEAR THE EDGE) reprised NIGHT OF RENEWAL a few days after its Durham premiere, during First Night festivities at the N.C. Museum of History. Its curious blend of Scottish and African dance forms (set to Ed Butler's pensive banjo, Ted Ehrhard's fiddle and Grace Camblos' haunting Gaelic vocals) traces the influences these cultures have historically had on one another in the Southern highlands. Though the joints of the work still need smoothing, Burrus and Khalsa did effectively show how differing folkways echo down through time.

Still, NIKKI DUBLIN's solo, INSIGHT, REFLECTION & SURPRISE, had lost much of the shattering sharpness its first showing had during the fall Meredith Dance Concert in Raleigh. That performance, set to the spiritual "Fix Me, Jesus," used African and hip-hop techniques to effect a series of almost instant, planar shifts—and depict the dilemma of a young religious woman bewildered to feel a sacred spirit moving within her body, perhaps for the first time. In this performance, where live improvised vocals replaced the earlier prerecorded soundtrack, the focus looked much fuzzier, the sync between movement and music considerably more tentative. Where once they shook their celebrant, this time the sacred impulses seemed instead to merely ooze: Not, in this case, a step in the right direction.

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