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Byron Woods 

Shorting Shakespeare, long on dance

Our briefing on January dance, including that three-night, all-star showcase, the North Carolina Dance Festival, begins immediately after this consumers' advisory: Avoid the abridged King Lear at Playmakers Rep.

Wait, wasn't that the same show we raved about last week? Well, yes--and no.

Remember, two Lears are running now at Playmakers. It was the full "First Folio" edition we raved about last week. (See our capsule review, below, for highlights.)

By all means, ask for it by name. Especially since the second, shorter version (running on various evenings and student matinees) mainly proves that, sometimes, less is far less: less accomplished, less interesting and less coherent.

If the show's publicity can be trusted, this abbreviated take was the one director Mark Wing-Davey originally contemplated with actor Michael Winters before they arrived in Chapel Hill.

The "First Folio" edition was actually a happy afterthought. At least, so the story goes.

Of course, had the opposite been true--and a full production with male full frontal nudity had been the only one originally planned--Playmakers would have had to forfeit thousands of dollars at the box office from cancelled daytime high-school student matinees. And a segment of the company's traditionally older, conservative--and well-heeled--subscription base might have easily found the exposed on-stage manflesh far beyond the pale.

So it's a good thing that Wing-Davey and Winters were originally counting on a quickie Lear without such potentially disturbing artistic choices. Such would also reduce the challenge somewhat for Winters, a master actor assaying the epic title character for the first time.

Don't get me wrong, it all could be the truth.

You just can't tell it from looking at this abbreviated Lear.

Of the two versions, this one seems the afterthought--and anything but a happy one. Not only would I swear that the abridged Lear was by far the last contemplated, and not the first--if I didn't know better, I'd say all work on it had stopped about three-fourths of the way toward completion.

The sloppy cut-and-pasting of reordered scenes, the undignified, racetrack pacing and the obviously short-changed tech make this briefer work little more than a butchering on-stage. Wing-Davey repeatedly sacrifices character establishment and development, continuity, plot points and coherency on the altar of dispatch.

Stripped tech cues repeatedly sabotage moments achieved in the full edition. At the open, they leave characters inexplicably looking through smoked glass at undimmed house and worklights, not the full show's solar eclipse. When the lights do go down in the longer Lear, Anthony Reimer's fifth act audio montage of the history of war expands to fill the theater and the imagination. When the lights stay up here, they reveal a single man, sitting on an empty stage, for several minutes.

Scenes like Act II's "Reason not the need" encounter between Lear, Regan and Gonerill are not as much concluded as they are abandoned, with actors abruptly dropping character and situation to race to the next scene. The pace makes Lear a rickshaw driver out of time when he wheels the dead Cordelia on stage in the work's penultimate moments.

At times scenes change before the lights do. When furniture and set pieces are discarded in the constant mad rush forward, Edgar winds up inexplicably delivering a touching soliloquy in front of a stove in his formerly forsaken house, where Gloucester has just been tortured.

When the order of scenes are changed, and plot points like Gloucester's attempted suicide are glossed over or discarded outright, the result is a student version that would be of limited use at best to any students actually watching.

The world, the characters, their relationships, the logic--all are compromised in this wretched rush job, one which leaves us wondering how an afterthought came off so splendidly, while its original inspiration remained so incomplete.

By all means, catch the "First Folio" version. Avoid the abridged Lear.

On to happier matters. January traditionally marks the return of dance to regional stages. Well before the yearly migratory pattern of the North Carolina Dance Festival crosses Raleigh this weekend, the locals have been busy.

These days dancer Jessica Harris works with Shen Wei in New York, and she appeared in his Rite of Spring and Beyond Resonance last summer at American Dance Festival. But Harris returned to the area over the holidays to stage the second annual Carolina Friends School Alumni Dance on Jan. 10.

The show, which played to a capacity crowd, was a benefit for the Kaia Parker Fund, a charity that honors the memory of a noted young dancer by funding opportunities for developing dance artists in this region. (For further details or to make a contribution, see the website:

Given the work of Jessica Shell, Flannery Hysjulien--and particularly up-and-comer Jasmine Powell (who technically doesn't become an alum until next May)--the two things we'd mainly wish for this self-billed "impromptu jamboree" are a little more organization and bigger audiences.

Though the Saturday concert was studded with interesting improvised moments, with tasty live jazz from a band led by Jim and Jonathan Henderson, it disclosed the limits even gifted dancers reached when icy weather removed one session from a rehearsal schedule that already was too brief.

The right folks are clearly on the case, and the cause could not be worthier. A bit more planning should make next year's benefit something to see.

Shows like that and the Choreo Dance Sampler on Jan. 18 not only display the diversity in regional dance--it clearly demonstrates what the community can do when its various sub-scenes unite for a larger cause. The big-tent winter invitational packed the PSI Theater at Durham Arts Council, as dancers from across the region learned about each other's work. Groups including Cai Flamenco and Jo Moore Kalat's highland dance troupe put best feet forward, while choreographer Laura Thomasson and host company Choreo Collective took risks. Such cross-pollination can only broaden all horizons--for creators and audiences both. We clearly need such congresses more than once a year.

It's appropriate that January closes with the largest such gathering, the North Carolina Dance Festival's three-night stand at Meredith College in Raleigh. Dance insiders already know the drill: three different shows, no overlap, and some of the best dance from local groups and top companies across the state.

We caught the festival in Asheville last weekend--or at least the two shows that weren't cancelled by Sunday's snow and ice. Here's our outlook on this weekend's gathering.

Thursday night the locals might just have the upper hand. We've followed Karola Luttringhaus' Alban Elved Dance Company with considerable interest in recent years, and praised their excerpt from Lux Eterna II at last summer's ADF. But three of the group's four scheduled works, "Green Woman," "Center to Edge" and "Just Can't Stop" suggest an over-reliance on incomplete characterization and poorly defined situations, or over-extended length. Only "At Arm's Length," from Midi, escapes these woes.

Having heard good things about Charlotte's Moving Poets Theater of Dance, we were also disappointed by their offering, "The Sea." Till Schmidt-Rimpler's choreography seemed at times to have little in common with the recited poems by e.e. cummings, and its emphasis on Joe Curry and Miranda Haywood's admittedly lovely duets left Skyla Caldwell wandering aimlessly about the stage during too much of the work. Distracting, amateurish live videography doubled the dancers' image on a back screen for no known reason, on top of prerecorded imagery of blue water. Unarguably a number of interesting elements--but they add up to less than the sum of the parts.

These contrast with Nikki Dublin's restaging of L. D. Burris' "The Spaces Between Us," from Meredith Dance Theater's winter concert, Postcard Dance Project's Julee Snyder, restaging "Transit Station" from the group's first Peace College staging last fall, and a reiteration of Laura Dean's 2000 work, "View Over Atlantis" by Meredith Dance Theater.

Friday, local artists have another strong night out--including the one who's been on tour with the Festival this year. Megan Marvel's interpretation of Robin Harris' "Solos from Longer Works" showcases Harris' enigmatic open-mouth solo from last year's Songs, a comic but disquieting monologue dance from Blanche, and two amusing restagings from her documentary dance, How To. Hopefully, Raleigh Dance Theater has had time to more fully master Tyler Walters' challenging String Theory, a ballet (in base two, for math fans) from last fall. Courtney Greer and Jodi Staub Obeid comment on artistic process in a new duet, "Working on Progress." From Greensboro, Younjung Kim performs Seung Mu, a traditional Korean monk's dance, and Jan Van Dyke's kinetic troupe explores the frayed ends of working days to eastern European music in "Day's End."

Saturday night closes the festival with an interesting mix. Michelle Pearson's haunting, harrowing "Lithium Bath" should be worth seeing on its own, and it's joined by Harper Piver's riot-grrl tribute, "Numb and Indifferent." (Locals might particularly want to catch this work, since Piver will be collaborating with 5Chick Posse later on this year.) Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater presents "Men Who Wear Colored Skirts," a slapstick dance which arguably doesn't present the best from dancers Nelson Reyes or Giles Collard, while saying little new about gender roles. Footnotes Tap Ensemble continues its ascent with three unseen works, before Even Exchange Dance Theater presents a collaboration with their parent company, Rainbow Dance Company, in "Firm Root to Wingtip." EndBlock

Reviews & Openings
The Capitol Steps, Stewart Theater, NCSU, Jan. 31, 4 p.m. (8 p.m. sold out), $30-$25, 515-1100; The Chosen, Theater Or, Judea Reform Congregation, Durham, Jan. 31-Feb. 1, through Feb. 8; Beth Meyer Synagogue, Feb. 14-15, $20-$10, or 990-1994; Debunked!, Triad Stage, Greensboro, Tues.-Sun., through Feb. 15, $27-$12, 336-272-0160; Flying in the Face of Fear, Off the Deep End Ensemble, First Baptist Church, Raleigh, Jan. 31 at 8 p.m.-Feb. 1 at 3 p.m., 821-3723; I Do! I Do!, Temple Theater, Sanford, Jan. 29-Feb. 1, through Feb. 15, $18-$10, 774-4155; My Fair Lady, N.C. Theater, BTI Center, Student preview Jan. 30, $10 w/I.D., Jan. 31-Feb. 8, $60-$20, 831-6950.

****1/2 King Lear (First Folio version), Playmakers Rep--Director Mark Wing-Davey's robust theatrical achievement continues Playmakers' tradition of January benchmark productions that set new standards for regional theater to meet in the coming year. On a cold, industrial shipbuilding set, scenic designer Narelle Sissons, costumier Marinia Draghici, sound designer M. Anthony Reimer and Mary Louise Geiger's lights all substantially contribute to Wing-Davey's Darwinian take on nature, and the necessity of social change. Michael Winters' finely-nuanced inaugural Lear avoids the carpet-chewing histrionics of predecessors; his feet falter only briefly at the top of this Everest of a role. Karen Walsh brightens the darkness as Cordelia, and Ronn Carroll does yeoman's work as Gloucester, while Rebecca Wisocky makes a brittle Gonerill. One of the most satisfying dramatic meals we've had in months; a work of vivid, epic imagination and systemic artistic accomplishment. Just be sure to hit the restroom before the two-hour first act starts. (Alternates with King Lear, (Abridged version), through Feb. 8. UNC Center for Dramatic Art, Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill. $32-$10. or 962-7529.)

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