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Byron Woods 

Two schools for Shakespeare?

Then came the week when Shakespeare went into the schools. No, not those traveling outreach programs: Two major regional companies opened mainstage productions of Love's Labors Lost and Romeo & Juliet last week--and both were set in schools.

In StreetSign's intriguing Shakespeare's R&J, a quartet at a private boys' academy plumbed new depths in contraband by mounting a forbidden production of Romeo & Juliet. Meanwhile, guest director Robert Milazzo set Duke Players' Love's Labors Lost in the confines of Navarre Public High School.

The differences between the two could have scarcely been more stark. In Joe Calarco's text, Shakespeare's sensuous and wiser words on anger, love and duty clarify what's missing in the quartet's regimented education. By unfortunate contrast, Milazzo's sloppy adaptation manages to muddy both the source and the world it's superimposed upon.

In Love's admittedly comic opening, four sophomore Chess Club geeks toast, with half-pint cartons of milk, their oath to study together for three years without the company of women . But the adaptation's logic stumbles when the French exchange student and the French Club are barred at the doors of the Duke's lyceum, as per Shakespeare's script--until the bell rings, and all trundle off inside to their next class. Later negotiations between a fake-French-accented exchange student and a Duke-in-name-only over hundreds of thousands of dollars and contested land--in a high-school lunchroom--lose all credibility.

Not that many were paying much attention to the words, since Milazzo elected to distract the audience, as frequently as possible, from cardboard characterizations and woefully nasal readings with slapstick and sight gags vended by various characters. When a bit with a Capri Sun juice pouch--not a line from Shakespeare--got the night's biggest laugh, one clearly sensed where the emphasis in this production lay.

Which is ultimately a disservice to Duke's students, who have demonstrated over the years that they can do Shakespeare--and do it well. When a production doesn't entrust them with a single dimensionalized character--or ask much more of them than substandard sketch comedy--students, audience and theater all lose.

By comparison, Shakespeare's R&J was a banquet rich in subtext, with fully committed performances. To correct misconceptions, Calarco's work is not a new, original play. More accurately, it's a remarkably deft adaptation of Romeo and Juliet for four players, with bits interwoven from A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Sonnets. To these, snippets from an 1880s book on etiquette and The Act of Contrition are sprinkled to represent the quartet's regimented daytime education.

On an almost empty stage, the acting is all that's left to focus on. It does not disappoint.

As Student One, Akil entices the other three to join him in play, soulfully groaning through the part of Romeo, his voice a potent combination of Dave Matthews and Nat King Cole. When Akil confesses, "I do love a woman," there is no doubt in the room--although he mugs for the audience at points in Act Two. Francis Sarnie IV's performance as Juliet is understated, while Christopher Salazar and Ronnie Cruz ably host a group of supporting characters as Students Three and Four.

Calarco's--and director Joseph Megel's--triumph here is that Shakespeare's work brings new dimension to a different world without being totally obscured in the process. The same cannot be said for the Duke production.

Even if she was looking to others for her dance moves in places--with selected choreographed duets staged as far from the audience as possible--Loretta Swit still had me in her title role as Mame. Her comic timing was on, her embodiment of upscale bohemianism which started the show was never too outre, and the tasteful reserve with which she greeted the boorish Upsons had genuine resonance. But still audiences wondered--why did her boy Patrick (Warren Freeman) turn out such a conservative dweeb? A colorful cast included Hal Davis as Rhett Butler-lookalike Beauregard, Maria Totten as an amusing Vera Gooch, and a Sheila Smith unfortunately well past prime as Vera Charles, the first lady of Broadway. EndBlock

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Reviews and Openings
Split Britches Theater Company, Peggy Shaw & Lois Weaver, Reynolds Theatre, Duke University; Hedda Gabler, Deep Dish Theater; The Guys, Bull City Players, Durham Arts Council; Gothic, Dog & Pony Show, Manbites Dog Theater; Annalisa Raspagliosi, Opera Company of North Carolina, Meymandi Concert Hall, BTI Center; Mathland: Lost in Numbers, Walltown Children's Theater, Carolina Theater, Durham.

****1/2 Handler, Raleigh Ensemble Players--The real venom isn't in the snakes in the Holiness Way Church, a community of poor, undereducated Appalachians convinced they've been commanded by God to pick up poisonous serpents as the final test--sometimes literally--of their love for him. As we watch from the church's rough wood pews, the faith of a congregation filled with damaged souls and bodies is shaken by the life and death of errant member Geordi (Zach Thomas). Under Glen Mathews' discerning direction, Canady Vance-Tanguis ricochets from ice-cold vengeance to memories more languid and obscure as Geordi's wife, Terri, and David Dossey equally convinces as charismatic spiritual leader Brother Bob. Brett Wilson, Christine Rogers and the unsettling Kristen Killmer fill out the ensemble in this most uncertain house of worship, where God hears and answers death prayers, and the choir sings--to the high lonesome sound of a marvelous, live bluegrass band--the unnerving lyrics, When I die, Hallelujah, by and by... A harrowing and rewarding evening of theater.

****1/2 All the King's Men, Part One: Hope of the Heart
****1/2 All the King's Men, Part Two: Willie Stark, Burning Coal Theater--Get a move on: This two-part epic cyclorama of one Southern century closes this Sunday. Theater legend Adrian Hall's sprawling, broad-canvas adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's famous novel gives a strong ensemble a real workout in the season's most ambitious and imaginative production to date.

Extended exposition and tangled flashbacks-within-flashbacks preoccupy Part One, in which dissolute 1930s grad student Jack Burden uncovers the true nature of history while gradually unthreading the mystery of 19th-century Abolitionist Cass Mastern. But the brakes come off in a barnburning Part Two, when Burden becomes caught up in the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a politician based on populist Louisiana governor Huey Long.

Stephen Roten makes Burden a likable cynic, while Dan Kenney embodies Stark's transformation from gubernatorial patsy to the Mephistophelean manipulator of a political machine. Singular support comes from Sarah Fallon as icy Annabelle Trice and acidic political lieutenant Sadie Burke; Carl Martin, who simply channels redneck political hack Tiny Duffy; and Mitch Butts, a standout as both Duncan Trice and Judge Irwin. But solid performances from Jeri Lynn Schulke, David Byron Hudson, David Klionsky, Lynne Marie Guilielmi, Greg Paul, Lynda Clark and Bob Barr give this world much of its authority.

Despite Harrison Fisher's steady hands, the show strays when it occasionally delves into song. At this point King's Men clearly needs an original score, and not the Randy Newman songs that too often become non-sequiturs when plugged into earlier historical events.

Even so, we're left with compelling history, compelling theater, and one of the season's clear high points.

***1/2 A Prayer for Owen Meany, Playmakers Rep--One show, three verdicts: Playmakers' Owen Meany is (1) a good production (2) of a problematic adaptation (3) of a pretty dismal novel. There's no shortage of interesting images on stage in this American premiere, as director David Hammond influences significant individual performances while experimenting with surreal, presentational staging. Jeff Gurner's a disquieting true believer in the title role of God's little emissary of death, and actors Joan Darling, Gregory Northrop, Ray Dooley and Tandy Cronyn offer considerable ensemble support.

But Simon Bent's skeletal adaptation of John Irving's long and largely joyless novel alters, elides and removes too many symbols, characters and plot points. Sure, a second night--a la Adrian Hall's All The King's Men--would flesh things out considerably. But who would really want to spend another night with the perpetually squeamish John Wheelwright, a narrator who so rarely learns from his past? By the end of play and novel, John's a character reduced to the Christianity he claims (perhaps too hastily) in the first sentence of both. Why? Owen's religious martyrdom, which the whole work sets us up for, manages to redeem everyone except the narrator--but neither novel nor show ever tells us why.

**1/2 Underneath the Lintel, Flying Machine--Where earlier religious traditions venerate splinters from crosses and bones of the saints, in this engaging one-person show an addled Dutch librarian (J. Chachula) proffers a London Chinese laundry ticket from 1913, an audio recording from the 1920 World's Fair, and a library book 113 years overdue as evidence of a man a vengeful god has tried to erase. An amusing shaggy-dog story about a religious mystery takes on darker hues as we watch a Milquetoast curmudgeon recklessly pursue faith--to the point of transforming himself into the thing he's chasing. Interesting premise. The problem: although regional standout Chachula has no shortage of craft, he's still about 20 years too young for the role.

** Mama, I Want to Sing, NCCU Theater and Music--Doris wants to sing at the Apollo, while her mother only wants her to sing in church. But when Vy Higginsen's poorly-written biography of soul songwriter Doris Troy resolves this knock-down leave-home mother/daughter rift by having two actors just sing different hymns, you can somehow tell that the church, the culture--and the audience--go fundamentally unchallenged in this sentimentalized, didactic show. The one highlight: music director Richard Banks' magnificent choir, band and soloists throughout.

* Harold and Maude, NRACT--30-to-40-somethings will remember the Hal Ashby film with Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort. Nick Karner shows spark as Harold, and Romni Rossi is a stitch as Bachelorette #2 in this fledging community theater production. Still, this is the second NRACT show in as many months where the fundamentals in direction, character work and tech remain problematic throughout. EndBlock

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