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Byron Woods 

Political, religious--and artistic--conflict

Serendipitous scheduling--and a culturally diverse theatrical community, one unafraid to lay hands on the controversial issues of our day--bring to the regional stage this month two strong texts that comment not only on the volatile interplay between Jewish religions, cultures and politics, but on the far-reaching, and even global consequences of the dissonances and divisions among these institutions.

This weekend, Theater Or's sensitive inaugural production of The Chosen, Chaim Potok's famous novel of factions--and an unlikely friendship--among Orthodox and Hasidic Jewry in 1940s New York, closes at Raleigh's Beth Meyer Synagogue, after two weeks at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham. At the same time, David zumBrunnen will continue Deep Dish Theater's presentation of Via Dolorosa, British playwright David Hare's autobiographical account of his 1997 trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Potok's work is a tender, inside account of obstacles two teenaged boys face when trying to bridge the chasm between their different forms of Judaism. Hare's one-man show, meanwhile, purports to be an outsider's quasi-journalistic travel observations, a record of conversations with a number of different Israelis, Palestinians and others on the present circumstances in the Middle East.

On the face of it, both works could have scarcely come from more different worlds and still have focused on related subjects. But deep connections slowly surface between the two.

The deep divisions between the Orthodox and Hasidim in Potok's world find resonance in Hare's documentation of the splits between supporters of the Labor and Likud parties. In both worlds, fundamental issues of identity remain at stake: the fiercely-guarded borders of belief in one anticipate the just as fiercely guarded physical and political borders in another.

In both worlds, absolute knowledge--and the absolute rigidity and intolerance which so frequently accompanies it--leads the children to the brink of xenocide, if not beyond.

In The Chosen actor Marshall Botvinick convinces and chills when his Hasidic character, young Danny, calmly announces that he'd wanted to kill young Orthodox Reuven; In the world of Via Dolorosa, young Palestinians are recruited to realize the death wishes of their elders.

The Chosen is the more conventional of the two offerings. Award-winning director Joseph Megel leads a troupe headed by Scott Franco through a memory play, and probes how a cross-religious friendship humanizes a brilliant and troubled child.

In Via Dolorosa, what frankly began as a grim recital last Thursday night slowly warmed into something more theatrical and humane. David zumBrunnen's British accent took some getting used to, and the relatively flat, affectless opening segued into impersonations of the characters Hare encountered in his travels. A late night walk through a West Bank settlement brings one of the evening's most effective exchanges--the confidential worries of Hare's host.

Significantly, both works leave us with few answers: The unresolved issues may overwhelm the young men in The Chosen; they threaten the world in Via Dolorosa. Towards the end, Hare repeatedly, plaintively asks a number of people, "What is the way forward?" Few answers--and no consensus--seem forthcoming.

Their common concerns, and the quality of the two productions, particularly commend both The Chosen and Via Dolorosa to thoughtful theatergoers. Taken together, the two form something of a mini-symposium, contrasting meaningful views on contested, contemporary faiths and how they are embodied in the world. EndBlock

Reviews & Openings
Other notable openings:
A Balanchine Celebration I & II, Carolina Ballet, BTI Center, Thu-Sun, Feb. 12-29, $59-$5, 719-0900; A Soldier's Play, N.C. Central University, Fri-Sun, through Feb. 22, $10-$5, 530-5170; African American Dance Ensemble, Carolina Theatre, Feb.18-19, 9:45 & 11:45 a.m., $7, 560-3030; The Gardens of Frau Hess, Raleigh Ensemble Players, Thu-Sat, through Feb. 28, $15-$10, $25 fundraiser Feb. 14, 832-9607; Kiss Me Kate, Broadway at Duke, Page Auditorium, Feb. 16, $45-$15, 684-4444; Language of Angels, Shaw University, Kennedy Theatre, Feb. 12-15, $15-$5, $20 fundraiser Feb. 14, 546-8420; Les Miserables, Broadway Series South, BTI Center, through Feb. 15, $67-$30.50, 831-6950; Little Women, Durant Road Musical Theater, Raleigh, Thu-Sat, 844-3228; Measure for Measure, Peace College, through Wed. Feb. 18 (no Sunday show), 7:30 p.m., $10-$5, 508-2051; Of Ebony Embers: Vignettes of the Harlem Renaissance, Hayti Heritage Center, Feb. 17, $15-$12, 683-1709; The Rocker, Theatre in the Park, Raleigh, Thu-Sun, Feb. 13-29, $18-$12, 831-6058; Silver River, Manbites Dog Theater, Thu-Sun, through Feb. 28, $15-$10, pay-what-you-can ($5 min.) Feb. 12, $20 Feb. 13 fundraiser, 682-3343.

***1/2 A Perfect Ganesh, Wendell Theatre--New reasons to keep your eye on future attractions from this Duke student company (since this show closed Feb. 7): Caroline Patterson's singularly convincing turn as the crisp and lonely Margaret Civil, a woman 40 years her senior; Caroline Alexander's similar achievement as traveling companion Katherine; Danny Smith and Greg Anderson's prismatic supporting roles, and Amit Mahtaney's finely-detailed direction which cultivated those achievements.

*** Shirley Valentine, Ghost and Spice Productions--If Lenore Field can single-handedly salvage this fairly pedestrian one-woman show about a downtrodden, middle-aged English housewife in search of fulfillment and escape, we can only begin to imagine what she'd do with worthier work. Willy Russell's problematic, Lifetime-level script touches the predictable bases (boorish spouse, ungrateful children, childhood neglect, faded dreams and desires), before just as predictably gratifying his character's wishes. Still, Field makes it worthwhile. (Fri-Sun, through Feb. 15. Wellness Partners in the Arts, 319 W. Main, Durham. $12-$10. 680-2562.)

*** Debunked, Triad Stage, Greensboro--We know two things: Three pairs of famous Siamese twins did make North Carolina their final home, and Alexander Woo's wordy new comedy based on this eerie portent works a lot harder than it should have to. This self-styled cross between Frankenstein and Gone With the Wind focuses on a mad scientist's scheme to simultaneously free a wealthy matron's conjoined daughters and make a mint in live entertainment. The outlandish plot includes a head-and-body swapping daisy chain, but the play loses buoyancy from the usual Old South Eccentrics assembled. Mrs. Colonel Kincaid (Kirtan Coan) might have been the original steel magnolia, but entertaining Mark Boyett drowns in verbage--and one character twist too many--as the windy Dr. Beauregard. (Through Sun, Feb. 15. $37-$12. 336-274-0067.)

**1/2 Shorts in Winter: Love UnCovered, Carrboro Artscenter--Going away, Jonathan Karpinos' brilliant (if poorly titled) Ritual Feast was the best from this mixed bag of ten-minute plays. The premise: two couples have had the identical dinner conversations and arguments for so long now that they can paraphrase every single wretched exchange, in the interests of time. Matt Spangler's direction was spot-on, and the quartet (Candice Churilla, David Kilonsky, Leila Keen and Chris Chiron) was flawless.

We can't say the same for the rest. Since the producer's curtain speech listed last-minute maladies including cast changes and a car wreck, your experience may well be better. But at the top of the spectrum on Friday night, the scripts intrigued--and the performances and direction reduced the stakes--during Mark Harvey Levine's comic Surprise, Babs Lindsay's cautionary Cupid's Beau, and Mike Folie's Perp.

Toward the bottom, different character concepts might conceivably have salvaged the failed Lorcan poetry of May Tag. But playwright Eric Appleton tried to jam two full acts into This Tunnel, Robin Armstrong's soap opera Smouldering Embers was unremarkable, and Judy Klass chose to lecture on the sexes in the tired scene-about-a-scene, Make It Up. Still, one more week in the theatrical laudromat could change the patterns on at least some of these checkered shorts. (Thu-Sat, through Feb. 14. $14-$12. 929-ARTS.)

(Sliding Scale--see review) I Do! I Do! Temple Theater, Sanford--Scenesters in their 20s will likely flee this time capsule of mid-century mores about marriage, gender roles and the middle-class life cycle, but their grandparents will likely find it a mirror reflecting some of their most heartfelt aspirations. Donna Shannon and Martin Thompson do justice to the naive couple who slowly segue from sheltered innocence to a maturity that, in 1966, was in some ways just as sheltered.

Thus our Sliding Scale rating for this inoffensive, sentimental song cycle: For every five years you are over 50, add one-half * to our base rating of **1/2 . For every five years under 35, subtract one-half *. Because my 65-year-old aunt would find this show a **** wowzer, while her 18-year-old granddaughter would climb the * walls. (Thu.-Sun, through Feb. 15. $18-$10. 774-4155.)

** The Blacks: A Clown Show, Urgent Theatre--This new company's passion is exceptional: No work I've seen in this year--or the last--has shown more interest in taking an audience to the wall on issues involving race than this volatile take on Jean Genet's indictment of Western Civilization (which closed in Duke's Ark on Feb. 8).

Now Urgent Theatre urgently needs a seasoned stage director to help them with technique. Emotions that redlined too early left too many actors with nowhere to build to, and added difficulties with the rudiments of pacing, line delivery and character construction too often neutralized what could have been a theatrical Molotov cocktail. Still, their nervy on-stage choices make me wonder if there's any theatrical risk they won't take. If we're very lucky, we'll hear from them again--with better help in direction and production next time.

1/2* Morning's at Seven, Raleigh Little Theater--Just how bad is Morning's at Seven? So bad that RLT mainstays Rebecca Johnston, Sharon Pigott, Linda O'Day Young, Dennis Rogers, Tim Wiest and John Adams--combined--can't save it. Since the 1980 Broadway remount of Paul Osborn's 1939 play took the Tony for best revival, we'll assume that production gave its audiences characters to care about before the third act. But leaden pacing, a concert of excruciating pauses and director Haskell Fitz-Simons' irritating, reductive casting and character choices squandered some of RLT's greatest talent--and provoked the multiple walk-outs observed during and after Act One last Sunday afternoon. (Wed.-Sun, through Feb. 22. $19-$5. 821-3111.)

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